Hall of Fame trainer provides perspective on the Belmont Stakes


In the past, I have brought people to Belmont Park for the first time, and they almost invariably have the same reaction: “Where are the horses?” When I point them out on the far side of the enormous oval, they can’t believe how small the horses look from the perspective of the grandstand.

That is one of the things that makes the Belmont Stakes so unique…it’s not just a mile-and-a-half race, but it’s a mile-and-a-half race that is run on a mile-and-a-half oval. It is a race that requires the participants to go once around that oval. Unlike a traditional one-mile oval, the backstretch seems to go on forever, and the sweeping turns take significantly longer to navigate. The uniqueness of the race is demanding for horses, trainers and jockeys. It is probably the longest race on dirt that they will ever compete in, and the fact that it takes them once around the massive oval makes the Belmont Stakes a one-of-a-kind horse race.

To understand the mysteries of the Belmont Stakes, I recently spoke to Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito. His credentials include two wins in the Belmont (Birdstone at 36-1 in 2004 and Da’Tara at 38-1 in 2008).  He’s finished 2nd in the race seven times. He is also accomplished in the other legs of the Triple Crown, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1991 (Strike The Gold) and 1994 (Go For Gin) and winning the Preakness in 1996 (Louis Quatorze).

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As a lifelong New Yorker, however, the Belmont holds a special place in Zito’s heart. He says one of the first races he ever saw that truly moved him was the 1968 Belmont, when Stage Door Johnny, a horse with remarkable distance pedigree derived from European champions, made a sweeping move under jockey Heliodoro Gustines to capture the race. It was his owners, the Whitney family and their Greentree Stable, that chose to import bloodstock from Europe to breed at Greentree.

Thinking about Stage Door Johnny made Zito also think back to the 1990 Belmont. The winner that year was Go And Go, who had been trained for the marathon distance by the Irish training master Dermot Weld by galloping up hills in Ireland. Finishing 2nd in the race was the Zito-trained Thirty Six Red, who seemed like the only other horse in the race who was properly suited for the mile-and-a-half. His trainer points out that on the female side of Thirty Six Red’s pedigree was none other than Stage Door Johnny. To be sure, breeding means a great deal at this demanding distance.

One of the key questions that handicappers raise every year regarding the Belmont Stakes is “What makes a mile-and-a-half horse?” To be sure, there have been many instances when horses who looked like winners at the top of the stretch would hit that imaginary wall somewhere in the stretch and be caught in the final quarter-mile. As an example, Zito pointed to 2004, when his horse, Birdstone, got up in the final furlong to deprive Smarty Jones of the Triple Crown. Zito knew that Smarty Jones was the best 3-year-old in the country at distances up to a mile-and-a-quarter, but he might be vulnerable at the Belmont distance. The trainer felt that he had a shot if Smarty Jones faced some pressure on the lead (which he did), and Birdstone, owned by Mary Lou Whitney, ran to his pedigree and got up for the win at 36-1 odds.

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As a New Yorker, Nick Zito knows how much the Belmont Stakes means to his hometown. He says that the race is bound to tradition, whether its theme song is Sidewalks of New York, as it was years ago, or Sinatra’s version of New York, New York. He says that New Yorkers genuinely get excited for the Belmont, especially when a Triple Crown is on the line, pointing to the crowd of 120,000 that showed up in 2004 for what they hoped would be a coronation for Smarty Jones. He says we shouldn’t change a thing about the Belmont. “There’s a reason they call it The Test of the Champion, and that comes from the uniqueness of the distance and the spacing of the races,” Zito told me. “Don’t change a thing about the Triple Crown.”

When I asked him if we would ever see trainer Woody Stephens’ remarkable record of training 5 consecutive Belmont winners be matched, he emphatically said no. “It’s like DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak,” Zito said. He pointed to the emergence of horses owned by consortiums of owners and trainers with barns all over the country as some of the reasons why he feels the record will not be matched.

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Experts have often expressed the opinion that the Belmont Stakes is more of a “jockey’s race” than the other legs of the Triple Crown. Jockey strategy and the instructions they have been given by trainers have played a large role in the race’s history. Given that factor, I asked Nick Zito what type of instructions for the Belmont he would give to jockey Sonny Leon if he were the trainer of Rich Strike. He said “I’d tell him we’re in seventh heaven.  There’s no pressure, since we’ve already beaten Epicenter and Zandon. Just beware of Mo Donegal, since he might like the distance.” He also added that We The People, the front-running runaway winner of the Peter Pan Stakes, should not be allowed to get on a loose lead, or he could be a serious threat.

The observations of Nick Zito provide remarkable insight into the challenges and uniqueness of the Belmont Stakes. From a betting perspective, however, what type of puzzle will this year’s Belmont be? The big question is how bettors will regard the 80-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby. Many will think that Rich Strike’s win was a fluke and disregard him, which I believe is a huge mistake. He has been impressive in his training since the Kentucky Derby, and the combination of his distance-loving nature and his improving form cycle lead me to believe that he will finish in one of the top 3 spots. I believe his biggest threats will come from four other horses:

  • We The People, a serious pace factor in the race
  • Creative Minister, who was 3rd in the Preakness in only his 4th career start and is likely to improve
  • Mo Donegal, who is made for the distance and can be a late-closing factor
  • Nest, a filly pointed for this race by Todd Pletcher, who won this race with the filly Rags To Riches in 2007

The Belmont Stakes is a race that embraces tradition while asking horses to navigate a distance they will probably never have to navigate again.  Every year, whether a Triple Crown is on the line or not, it is a race that is filled with unknown factors until they spring the gate. So, sit back, place a few wagers and watch the mystery unfold in the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

Watch the 154th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 11 from 3 to 5 p.m. ET on CNBC and from 5 to 7 p.m. on NBC. Coverage is also available on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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


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 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%.

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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.

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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.