When it comes to the Belmont Stakes, expect the unexpected. Surprising results at big odds happen in the final jewel of the Triple Crown more often than victories by the favorite. That is the nature of a race that often has so much on the line and that it is run at the rare dirt distance of a mile and a half.
Since the year 2000, only three favorites have won the Belmont Stakes and one of them was the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. In the same time period, eight favorites were completely out of the money with an overall record of 18: 3-4-3. In addition to Pharoah, the other favorites to win were Afleet Alex in 2005 and Point Given in 2001.
Triple Crown failures accounted for five of the beaten favorites. The top betting choice has won the Belmont at 16.7% clip, which is far below the typical numbers for favorites. The average winning odds of the Belmont Stakes since the turn of the century is a gaudy 15.35-1.
In the past two decades, the tote board was lit up by some big bombers led by the 70.25-1 odds of the Kenny McPeek trainee Sarava. 2002 had a Triple Crown on the line in War Emblem. Sarvana was the 10th choice in a field of 11 that also included today’s prominent sire Medaglia d’Oro. Sarava had won the Sir Barton Stakes in his prior start on the Preakness undercard.
The next two bombers were also in races where the Triple Crown contender failed to win. In 2008, Da’ Tara scored at 38.50-1 when Big Brown was pulled up entering the final turn. This Nick Zito trainee had finished second in the Barbaro Stakes that was also run at Pimlico before the Preakness.
Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in 2004 handing the previously unbeaten favorite his first defeat at odds of 36-1. Birdstone was also trained by Zito and like Sarava was ridden by Edgar Prado. Zito gave the son of Grindstone time off after running eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
As trainer Bob Baffert makes his fifth try to win the Triple Crown with Justify, he faces a group of America’s top conditioners who have experience upsetting the favorite in New York. Todd Pletcher leads the way as the upset winner of the Belmont Stakes three times with Tapwrit, Palace Malice, and Rags to Riches. Pletcher will have Vino Rosso and Noble Indy in this year’s race. Steve Asmussen, who took the 2017 Belmont with the 16-1 Creator, will take another try to beat Justify with Tenfold. Bill Mott worked his magic with 13-1 Drosselmeyer in 2010 and this year sends out the much talked about Hofburg. D.Wayne Lukas last won the Belmont in 2000 when the 18-1 Commendable was the upset winner. The Coach is taking a shot at Justify with Bravazo.
Justify will go into the starting gate as an odds-on favorite whose price will rival the .75-1 odds of American Pharoah. If he can become the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown, he and Bob Baffert will have had to buck so many obstacles in what history says is one of the most difficult achievements in American sports. That is why 90,000 people will pack Belmont Park on June 9 in anticipation of a rare moment in sports
Photo of Justify courtesy of Coady Photography