Fore Left could upset Tiz the Law in Belmont Stakes

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In the scheme of things, the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets being run in June at Belmont Park doesn’t seem that out of the normal. However, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic the fact the race comes before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and Preakness Stakes and will be run at the distance of 1 1/8 miles instead of 1 ½ miles really makes a point that things are out of whack this year. Just the same, a strong field of 10 lines up for the race which earns the top four finishers significant points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

NBC is home to the 152nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 20, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and NBCSports.com before, during and after the main event. Coverage runs from 2:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. on NBC, just hours after NBC’s coverage of the final day of the Royal Ascot in England. Stream the 2020 Belmont Stakes here.

Tiz the Law leads the field in career earnings ($945,300) and accomplishments, having won four of five career races including the Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby easily by 4 ¼ lengths when last seen. Sole Volante also has won four races, including the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes in February, before posting a runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and then a strong win 10 days ago at Gulfstream Park which was the ticket to ship from Florida to New York for this race. Another horse proven in the top races for 3-year-olds early this year is Modernist, winner of one of the two divisions of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford in February. However, he had no excuse when third in the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby in his most recent start. Likewise, Max Player won the Grade 3 Withers Stakes at the distance of this year’s Belmont, but hasn’t been seen in the 4 ½ months since then. Fore Left shipped halfway across the world for his 3-year-old debut and came away with a strong win on the lead throughout in the Group 3 UAE Two Thousand Guineas Sponsored by Masdar at Meydan Racecourse in February. Dr Post punched his ticket into the race with a victory in the Unbridled Stakes in late April. He’s trained by Todd Pletcher, who also saddles Farmington Road, the runner-up in the Oaklawn Stakes in April and then a non-threatening fourth in a division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in May. Tap It to Win scored impressively at Belmont just 16 days ago and appears to have a lot of talent. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who recently became the all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs, saddles a pair of Belmont contenders. One of those is Pneumatic, who contested the pace for most of the race before tiring a bit and ending up third in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes last month. The other is Jungle Runner, who won the one-turn Clever Trevor Stakes in November 2019 but who has been beaten by a total of 77 ¼  lengths in four starts since then.

Although Tiz the Law is the one to beat on paper, I’m going to take a shot with Fore Left to post the upset in the Belmont Stakes. The colt won the first two starts of his career last May and June, both sprints including the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park, then after two months off he wasn’t disgraced a bit when ending up third, a neck behind the runner-up in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. Following a poor effort in his two-turn debut in the American Pharoah Stakes last September, the colt returned to sprinting and won a minor stakes before trying an all-weather track and trying turf, finishing third then 10th in those races. Rested two months and put back on the dirt while shipping to Dubai for the UAE Two Thousand Guineas, Fore Left led from the start in a 16-horse field and held off all challengers early while drawing off late with some authority. That effort showed he had matured nicely over the winter as he earned a career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure. The third-place finisher in that race returned to win a stakes the following month, which flattered the form of Fore Left somewhat. Rested since then, Fore Left resumed training in April and shipped to Belmont the first week of June. Since then, he’s put in two very strong morning drills over a track he already proved a liking for when winning last spring. Although Tap It to Win earned his last victory at Belmont leading from start to finish, I believe Fore Left will be sent for the lead by jockey Jose Ortiz and if allowed to get into a high cruising speed as he did in the Two Thousand Guineas, he could post the upset win against this field. He still has to beat Tiz the Law, who earned 117 and 112 figures in his last two starts, but considering this will be only his second start as a 3-year-old, Fore Left may be able to do just that.

There’s little question Tiz the Law is the horse to beat based on his body of work, and particularly his two races this year. Rested two months after a poor third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall, Tiz the Law was a powerful winner of the Holy Bull Stakes with a career-best and field-high 117 Figure which remains the highest stakes-winning figure by any 3-year-old in North America even four months later. Although he earned a lower 112 figure winning the Florida Derby, Tiz the Law did not need to run any faster after he opened up by a length in the stretch and jockey Manuel Franco noted there were no challengers coming. When a horse has earned two consecutive figures that are both higher than any other horse in the field, it’s known as a “double advantage,” and these horses win a high percentage of the time. Considering how well Tiz the Law ran off a similar layoff in the Holy Bull, and the fact that he has excellent tactical speed which is likely to have him in third or fourth position early and in range of the leaders at the critical stage of the race, Tiz the Law is a legitimate favorite and the most probable winner. The only proviso is how strong a horse like Fore Left may be if allowed an easy lead from the start, as horses can get very courageous when allowed to run that way.

Sole Volante was my top choice in the Sam F. Davis Stakes on this page in February off his third-place effort in his first dirt start prior to that. Not only had trainer Patrick Biancone already proved prescient with the move as his Ete Indien had run very well a couple of weeks earlier after making the same transition, but Sole Volante had tremendous dam-side breeding for running well in stakes on dirt. The other foal from his dam, Explode, won or placed in stakes at distances from 1 1/8 to 1 ¼ miles. Sole Volante rewarded those who bet him in the Sam F. Davis with a win at 5.80-1 odds and earned a career-best dirt figure of 108. One month later in the Tampa Bay Derby, Sole Volante rallied from 11th of 12 early but couldn’t catch the winner and ended up second. Taking three months off, Sole Volante was very impressive with a big burst of speed in the stretch to win 10 days ago in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Even though that was not a stakes race, his 107 figure was stakes quality. Sole Volante is likely to be near the back of the pack early but if there is any sort of pace battle early or if the early fractions are faster than average, Sole Volante could be passing the field late for his second graded stakes win of the year.

Honorable mention goes to Tap It to Win and Dr Post as both are on the verge of breakthrough performances. Tap It to Win won a sprint in May in his 3-year-old debut with a 99 figure, then improved to a 108 figure effort 16 days ago. That win came in a one-turn route at Belmont not much different from the Belmont Stakes. Because of the level of the race, there’s no way to know the class of the horses he beat, but as a son of Tapit and with the ground-saving rail draw, Tap It to Win may take the needed step forward to compete with these. Dr Post shows a similar pattern as he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles off a sprint in his most recent start and won well. He improved from a 92 figure to 101 so he appears to be a bit behind Tap It to Win but 3-year-olds still have potential to take a big leap forward from race to race, particularly lightly-raced ones like Dr Post.

The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is: Farmington Road (100), Jungle Runner (85), Max Player (103), Modernist (94) and Pneumatic (98).

Win Contenders:

Fore Left

Tiz the Law

Sole Volante

Watch the 2020 Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 20 from 2:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. 

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

RELATED: Olympiad cruises to Jockey Club Gold Cup victory

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

RELATED: Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.