The Belmont goes off at 5:43 pm EDT.
It’s Belmont Stakes day, and it seems oddly fitting, in this year that we’ll never forget, that the race will be run at almost the exact moment of the summer solstice. The race that is normally the last and longest race in the Triple Crown is now the first and the shortest, and while there is probably no cosmic significance in any of the changes at Belmont Park this year, we will forgive those who see a higher power in how the world, and the race, seems upside down. This year has frequently, especially in the last few months, felt downright biblical.
One thing that is true, we think, is that in terms of handicapping the Belmont Stakes, history is out the window: all of the traditional markers we would normally take into account when trying to dope out a winner do not apply this year. Some of this is obvious -- the race is 9 furlongs, not 12, so there’s no need to worry about whether a horse can stay a mile and a half -- but some is more subtle, like whether the grind of the Triple Crown season is going to catch up to a horse. We’re handicapping this year’s Belmont much more like a normal Grade 1 stakes race, and less like the traditional Test of the Champion.
Here are the runners in the 109th Belmont Stakes, which has a scheduled post of 5:43 pm, and our thoughts on each of them.
1-Tap It to Win, 6-1: This is a very talented, and very fast, colt who has won in eye-popping fashion more than once in his career. He broke his maiden last summer at Saratoga running against a track bias: he was on the rail on a racing surface where the inside was absolutely dead. It takes a very good horse to outrun a bias. He also has been impressive this year, with a good win off a layoff on May 9, and then a sensational win in a Gulfstream Park allowance on June 4. It was that last race, when he earned a very good speed figure beating some pretty good horses, and was extremely visually impressive doing so, that makes us think he can win the Belmont Stakes. He is a huge threat, especially if he gets a favorable pace scenario.
2-Sole Volante, 9/2: The winner of this year’s Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs has run six times, won four of them, and hit the board in the other two. He’s a stretch runner who seems to run his race every time. His speed figures are competitive, and like Tap It to Win, he has an impressive last-out win, when he beat a very good allowance field at Gulfstream Park. That race was on June 10, which begs two questions: is the 10-day turnaround too short? And will there be enough pace to set up his late run? He’s a major threat if the pace works out in his favor.
3-Max Player, 15-1. This Linda Rice trainee is 2-for-3 in his career, including a win in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, but he has been away from the races since February, and has yet to face horses of this caliber. His speed figures are a bit light, and while it is possible for 3-year-olds this time of year to improve significantly in a relatively short period of time, we think a minor award is his ceiling.
4-Modernist, 15-1. Trainer Bill Mott sends out Modernist. Mott won the Kentucky Derby last year with Country House, a horse whose form made a win seem impossible, so maybe we should not be quite so quick to toss this one. And Modernist did win the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds in February. But he finished a dull third in the Louisiana Derby after that, and the horses in Louisiana this year have seemed a cut behind the horses in Florida, Arkansas, and California. We think he has little chance.
5-Farmington Road, 15-1. This colt is very well-bred, but he’s also a plodder with little early speed. In his last three races, all stakes, he clunked up for a minor placing, but we think even that may be a stretch today. We are tossing him from win consideration.
6-Fore Left, 30-1. This Doug O’Neill trainee, whose last race was in Dubai, will have a major impact on the race, but it will be in the first six furlongs, affecting the early pace. He will not be around at the end of the race. An out-of-the-money finish seems a near certainty.
7-Jungle Runner, 50-1. He’d probably be better off finding a non-winners-of-two allowance in a jungle somewhere, because this colt is too slow to be a factor during any part of the race. He is overmatched, and we think he is a cinch to finish last.
8-Tiz the Law, 6/5. The deserving favorite in the 2020 Belmont Stakes starts for Barclay Tagg, who is one of the most patient trainers around. Tagg’s skillful handling of Tiz the Law, who’s a New York-bred, has him coming into this race in what appears to be absolutely perfect condition. He’s fit, he’s ready, and he looks to be better than the other eight runners. Tiz the Law is strictly the horse to beat here. He is also worth cheering for one other reason: in a sport that has been rocked this year by stories of trainers using performance-enhancing drugs in disgusting and inhumane ways, Tagg, and ownership team Sackatoga Stables, are unquestionably among the good guys.
9-Dr. Post, 5-1. This lightly-raced son of Quality Road is intriguing: he’s won two of his three career starts, and has done so impressively. The only question is whether he’s ready for this: his wins were against much, much weaker competition than he will face today. He also regressed, in terms of speed figures, in his last race, which was his first race around two turns, and in a 3-year-old this time of year, a regression as the races get longer is usually a very negative sign. We think he is an underlay, and are against him as a win contender.
10-Pneumatic, 8-1. This is another horse with only three career starts, and he earned good figures in a couple of them. We think he may be a pace factor, but we think his inexperience will cause him to falter late.
Here is how we see the race taking shape: Tap It to Win will go right to the front from his rail post. If he were lone speed, we might consider betting one of our kidneys on him to win in wire-to-wire fashion. But we do not think he will be alone up front: he’s going to have company, from Fore Left and Pneumatic. The three of them should set a legitimate pace, not suicidally fast, but not dawdling, either.
Tiz the Law should get an ideal trip in two ways: the first is that he should be able to establish a good stalking position behind the pacesetters, and the second is that he is drawn outside: in a nine-furlong race, an outside post would normally be a disadvantage, but at Belmont Park, 1⅛ mile races are run around one turn -- it’s the only track in the country with this configuration. The outside post will give Manny Franco, Tiz the Law’s jockey, the luxury of time, lots of it, to establish a good position.
At around the quarter pole, we expect Tiz the Law to move up on the pacesetters. Tap It to Win will dig in; the other speed horses will throw in the towel. While this is happening, Sole Volante will be starting up his late run. Tiz the Law will move to the front in midstretch, and then begin to clear; he will win by about three lengths. Sole Volante will pass a tiring-but-game Tap It to Win for the place.
So call it Tiz the Law in first, Sole Volante in second, and Tap It to Win in third. For superfecta players, we’ll say that Farmington Road will clunk up for fourth, as he’s done in stakes races twice this year. That’s an 8-2-1-5 finish. The best horse is going to get the best setup, and when that happens, the best horse wins. Tiz the Law is the best horse in the 2020 Belmont Stakes. Enjoy the race.