The Belmont Stakes has become a tricky race to handicap lately for several reasons.
While favorites have triumphed about 40 percent during the past 142 races, that hasn’t been the case the last three decades as only six won — 23 percent.
And 15 winners during the past 30 years rewarded backers with double-digit returns – a nifty 50 percent.
Seven of the past dozen winners that scored went off at more than 11-1. Three recently won the Belmont off maiden victories: Da’ Tara in ’08, Jazel in ’06 and Commendable in ’00.
However, five winners went into the race with at least three scores, including ’05 favorite Afleet Alex and ’01 choice Point Given, both coming off Preakness victories.
Since pari-mutuel wagering was adopted 70 years ago in New York, 12 of 31 odds-on Belmont favorites visited the winner’s circle. But it’s no wonder there hasn’t been one since the last Triple Crown winner in ’78 – Affirmed.
During the 21st Century the average odds for the eight winning non-favorites is nearly 19-1 – the same odds that Commendable went off at defeating favored Aptitude by 1 ½ lengths.
During the past 11 years, three of the six largest payoffs in history were recorded. Sarava rewarded backers in ’02 with the highest return at 70 ¼-1. In addition to Birdstone, ’04, fifth all time, Da’ Tara is fourth at 38 ½-1.
The others were Lemon Drop Kid at nearly 30-1 in ’99, Temperance Hill at 53 ½-1 in ’80 and Sherluck at 65-1 in ’61.
Exotic bettors have needed the Kentucky Derby-Preakkness champ to finish second or third to cash tickets.
Of the four exactas with Triple Crown hopefuls finishing second, only the ’04 Belmont paid three figures: While Birdstone returned $74 to win for $2, the exacta with Smarty Jones paid $139. Ah, but the $2 trifecta proved very rewarding: $1,589.
The most lucrative trifecta came in ’99 when Lemon Drop Kid, paying $61.50 on the front end, edged Vision and Verse, who returned $44.40 to place, combined with Charismatic for a $5,343 trifecta.
From ’79 when Spectacular Bid ran third to ’04, six odds-on favorites lost, but five hit the board. Meanwhile, four odds-on choices scored: Swale, ’84 Kentucky winner; A. P. Indy, ’92, who missed the first two Triple Crown legs because of an injury; Thunder Gulch, ’95 Kentucky Derby victor; and Point Given, ’01 Preakness winner.
Some experts say wagering on the Belmont is one of the most difficult races to handicap because of the distance. Some say pay attention to recent performances because horses are more likely to score in top condition.
Some point out the field is usually smaller and the track is wide with sweeping turns so traffic usually isn’t a problem.
Others point out horses that rally from far back don’t usually win and those with good tactical speed stalking just off the pace with enough stamina to accelerate down the stretch prevail.
Pedigree can be an important factor as well since all the horses will have to go farther than ever before. While a surprising number of winners in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness outrun their breeding, the Belmont is called the true “Test of the Champion.”