Superstar racehorses have a way of scaring off their competition.
Secretariat faced just four rivals when he rolled to his record-setting 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Man o’ War had just one foe, a poor, hapless soul by the name of Hoodwink, when he galloped to a 100-length win in a 1920 stakes race. Spectacular Bid’s career finale in 1980 was the easiest kind of win after the owners of all his would-be rivals backed out of the race. The Bid pranced around the track uncontested.
Then there’s the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
Fourteen horses have lined up for the June 8 race, the most in 17 years and one shy of the record set in 1983. That can mean only one thing: There’s no super horse to fear. Not the Kentucky Derby winner Orb. No, not after his Preakness Stakes flop. And certainly not the Preakness winner either, a 15-1 longshot named Oxbow, who’s an OK enough sort but not the kind of colt you’d ever confuse for Secretariat.
So what we’re left with is an unwieldy herd of 14 horses running a 1 1/2-mile (2.4-kilometer) race that is a quarter-mile farther than any of them has tried before or will probably ever try again. Oh, and the weatherman’s calling for rain.
It’s like randomness to the third power.
If the traffic jams created by the bloated field size don’t do in your horse, then the muddy track will. And if he (or she - - there’s a filly in this race, Unlimited Budget) happens to escape the first two elements of chaos, then the marathon distance will surely prove too far. Or so it feels.
The distance alone is such a head scratcher for gamblers that the Belmont, even when contested by smaller fields over a dry racing surface, has produced four longshot winners at odds of over 25-1 since 1999, including Sarava, who took the 2002 edition at a price of 70-1.
I’ll embrace the randomness and demand double-digit odds in an attempt to extract value from the race. I just can’t rationalize accepting a price of around 3-1 on Orb or 5-1 on Revolutionary, my Derby selection, in a race this inscrutable.
I’ll take a stab with Palace Malice, playing him to win and in exotic wagers with fellow longshots Incognito, Freedom Child and the rank outsider Frac Daddy.
Figure Palace Malice will go off at odds of about 20-1 after he staggered home 12th in the Derby.
That race doesn’t worry me. Equipped with blinkers for the first time to limit peripheral vision and make him focus more on running, Palace Malice shot out of the Churchill Downs (CHDN) starting gate like his mane was on fire.
He dragged jockey Mike Smith to the lead and carved out a suicidal early pace that left him and the other frontrunners exhausted after a mile, setting the race up for stretch-running closers Orb, Golden Soul and Revolutionary to finish first, second and third.
Alas, the blinkers come back off for the Belmont.
That should help him slow down, relax and settle into a comfortable beat for the lap around Big Sandy, as Belmont Park is known to the cognoscenti.
Will he handle the distance, the traffic, the mud?
I have no idea.
But at 20-1, I’m willing to find out.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)
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