The year was 2014, and the track was Santa Anita. On a sunny Saturday in June, I tuned into the Belmont Stakes simulcast from a grandstand box with a pair of Golden State chums, each of whom were backing California Chrome to claim horse racing’s first Triple Crown since 1978.
I wasn’t exactly rooting against California Chrome, but my money was on Tonalist, a 9/1 shot who’d most recently prevailed in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. The progeny of Tapit, who’d once won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Tonalist simply refused to fade, winning the 1 1/2-mile Belmont by a nose as California Chrome faded to fourth.
Flush with my winnings, I headed across the street to imbibe heartily at the legendary dive bar 100-To-1, which, sadly, would close later that year. There’s now a posh club at Santa Anita bearing the same name, and the difference between the two venues — past versus present — could not be more stark.
The angle of angles
Since Tonalist’s win on that Saturday in June, three more Belmont winners — Creator in 2016, Tapwrit in 2017, and Essential Quality last year — have been produced by Tapit, making him the most successful Belmont sire of the modern era and establishing “sired by Tapit” as the trendiest Belmont betting angle in recent memory.
But running in the Peter Pan has also proven to be a pretty plausible path to winning the longest dirt race on the 3-year-old calendar.
“In history, we’ve had a lot of interesting horses come out of the Peter Pan,” Andy Serling, TV analyst and handicapper for the New York Racing Association, told NY Online Gambling. “It rates to be the likeliest race outside of a Triple Crown race for a horse to emerge from to make himself a Belmont contender. If you’re looking for an outsider, that’s the race that it’s most likely to come from.”
However, it’s difficult to call this year’s wire-to-wire winner, We the People, an outsider, as he’s the 2/1 morning line favorite to win Saturday’s big race coming off a 10 1/4-length victory in the Peter Pan over a sealed, wet track. Golden Glider, who earned a free roll in the Belmont by virtue of finishing second in the Peter Pan, is a 20/1 longshot.
Of We the People, one of three Tapit grandsons (along with Creative Minister and Barber Road) entered in the Belmont, Serling noted, “Because he’s the controlling speed and there’s now a possibility of rain, I think it does make him the horse to beat. The Belmont is a race, historically, where horses who are forwardly placed have an advantage. If there is rain, that will likely only make him a stronger favorite.”
As for Golden Glider, Serling said, “He’s a longshot. I haven’t really given him much consideration. I don’t think him having run in the Peter Pan is going to elevate his chances.”
She’s got the pedigree, boys
Looking away from the favorite, Serling likes Creative Minister, a 6/1 shot who was third in the Preakness, to win on Saturday, followed by Wood Memorial victor Mo Donegal (5/2) and the race’s lone filly, Nest (8/1).
Nest finished a game second last time out in the Kentucky Oaks to Secret Oath, the only filly to challenge the boys in the Preakness. (She finished fourth.) But it’s her stamina-saturated pedigree, more than her past performances, that could excite bettors.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Nest is the daughter of Curlin, an ultra-classy, durable horse who finished second in the Belmont the last time a filly — Rags to Riches in 2007 — won the race. (Ironically, it was Pletcher who trained Rags to Riches.) Nest’s dam, Marion Ravenwood, is by A.P. Indy, a former Belmont Stakes champ who — double irony! — sired Rags to Riches.
And A.P. Indy also won the Peter Pan in 1992.
“I know that Todd Pletcher entered her (Nest) because she has a pedigree that suggests she could go long,” said Serling. “And no trainer has been as successful at the Belmont as Todd has.”
As for the Kentucky Derby’s longshot winner, Rich Strike, he’s a 7/2 third choice in the Belmont after skipping the Preakness, which was won by the Chad Brown trainee Early Voting. That horse is being held out of Saturday’s race, meaning that, according to The Daily Racing Form, this will be the first time since 1954 that the Derby winner missed the Preakness in the same year that the Preakness winner skipped the Belmont.
Photo: Brad Penner/USA TODAY