Here are some names and numbers:
Jusitfy, 2018 . . . $3.60.
American Pharoah, 2015 . . . $3.50.
Afleet Alex, 2005 . . . $4.30.
Empire Maker, 2002 . . . $6.00.
Point Given, 2001 . . . $4.70.
Now, here are some others:
Creator, 2016 . . . $34.80.
Palace Malice, 2015 . . . $29.60.
Ruler on Ice, 2011 . . . $51.50.
Da' Tara, 2008 . . . $79.00.
Birdstone, 2004 . . . $74.00.
In case you were wondering, these are all win mutuels for Belmont Stakes winners this century. In contrast to the Preakness, which has been a fairly formful race in recent history, the Belmont is like the girl with the curl: it seems that the winner is either the favorite or an impossible-to-predict longshot. Why is this?
One big reason is distance. Horses just aren't bred to go this far any more, especially on dirt. Asking 10 or 12 horses who have never gone a mile and a half before -- and never will again -- is often going to lead to results that appear random. If they ran the 2008 Belmont 10 times, there might have been 10 different winners; Da' Tara was just the one who won the race the one time it was actually run.
Another reason is the makeup in the field. Most years, the 3-year-old colts with the most ability are pointed to the Kentucky Derby (via the Derby prep races), and to a lesser extent the Preakness. By the time the Belmont rolls around, many if not most, of these horses have gone by the wayside, and there are only a few stragglers left. That means that filling the field at the Belmont are a bunch of 3-year-old colts who are effectively the generation's junior varsity. Take a look at the Belmont charts the past decade or so, and you'll stumble across the names of horses you never heard of either before or after they ran in the Belmont. If you remember Hollywood Handsome, Matuszak, or Dave in Dixie, who ran in 2017, 2014, and 2010, respectively, then you are either a savant or you owned these horses. The fact is that a large segment of Belmont runners in recent years have been horses not worthy of running in a classic race, and this has contributed to the wins by horses at boxcar odds.
But while these reasons are useful explanations for the disparate odds on Belmont winners, we think that there is an even more important reason, and it is one that is very germane this year. It has to do with the quality of the horses who are able to run in the Belmont even after running in both the Derby and the Preakness.
If you look at the results listed above, the short-priced winners all ran in both the Derby and the Preakness, with the exception of Empire Maker, who skipped the Preakness after finishing second to Funny Cide in the Derby (and who was widely thought that entire spring and summer, Derby result notwithstanding, to be the best colt of his generation). But the point is valid with all of them. These were obvious high-quality horses who were still running, and running well, even at the end of the grueling Triple Crown trail. It's no surprise that the betting public made them favorites.
On the other hand, all of the long shots listed above, except for Birdstone (who denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown), came in years that lacked a horse who was both good and still standing after the rigors of the Derby and the Preakness. Taking a look at the charts, these years all lacked a horse of the caliber of Afleet Alex or Empire Maker, and it is therefore not surprising that the results were chaotic. A 25-1 winner is a surprise at any time, but it's less so when the field lacks obvious favorites.
What does all of this mean for this year? Will this be a year where there is no clear-cut choice, and a horse will win the Belmont at 35-1? Or will this be a year where the winner is obvious, and pays $6 or less?
This is an interesting question, because there is only one horse, Preakness winner War of Will, who will compete in all three legs of the 2019 Triple Crown. We think very strongly that the race runs through him. Whether one marks him as the likeliest winner, or whether one tosses him, is the most important decision in how to bet the Belmont, both in intrarace wagers like the trifecta and superfecta, and in interrace wagers like the Pick 4.
Will War of Will be another Point Given, who won the Belmont in 2001? Or will he be another Exaggerator, who finished 11th at 3-2 in 2016? We will look at this in our final segment on handicapping the Belmont. Check this space for it soon.