by Jon White
June 9, 2022
According to a poll conducted by Rolling Stone magazine last year, the readers selected “Take on Me” by Aha (I love that song and the accompanying video) as their favorite so-called one-hit wonder.
“Tell anybody in Europe that A-ha are one-hit wonders and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy,” Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene wrote. “Over there -- and especially in their native Norway -- A-ha scored hit after hit and were massively popular. They even played at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. In America, however they are the band with the cool animated video and the singer with the insanely high range.”
“I have no doubt that the video made the song a hit,” said keyboardist Magne Furuholmen. “The song has a super catchy riff, but it is a song that you have to hear a few times. And I don’t think it would’ve been given the time of day without the enormous impact of the video.”
Most people seem to believe that Rich Strike, he of the astonishing Kentucky Derby victory at odds of 80-1, is going to turn out to be an equine one-hit wonder.
“I see Rich Strike as a massive bet against in the Belmont Stakes,” New York racing analyst Andy Serling said recently.
A lot of people agree with Serling. On May 7, Rich Strike won the big enchilada in American racing, the Grade I Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Nevertheless, he is only the third choice at 7-2 on David Aragona’s morning line for the 154th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, which will be run Saturday (June 11) at Belmont Park.
We the People has been pegged as the 2-1 favorite on the Belmont Stakes morning line. Mo Donegal is the 5-2 second choice.
The Belmont, which serves as the Triple Crown’s final jewel, has attracted a field of eight. The moment it was announced shortly after the Kentucky Derby that Rich Strike would not be running in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 21, any chance of there being a 2022 Triple Crown winner went down the drain.
Rich Strike’s Preakness absence rubbed many people the wrong way. It reignited the debate as to whether the Triple Crown should be changed from its current configuration of the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby being held on the first Saturday in May, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness two weeks later, then the 1 1/2-mile Belmont three weeks after the Preakness.
NBC’s Randy Moss and many others think that Rich Strike passing on the Preakness is an example of why there should be more time than two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Because horses don’t race as frequently as they once did, the Preakness would entice a stronger field if, as many propose, the Preakness was moved to early June, with the Belmont then changed to early July.
I expressed my view on this last week.
“To the powers that be, I say please let it be. Do not fiddle with the Triple Crown,” I wrote last week.
“Moss has noted that if the Triple Crown were to be stretched out beyond its current five-week format, it might even be more difficult to sweep the series because of the likelihood that the fields for the Preakness and Belmont would be stronger. It is a valid point.”
According to Moss, the current Triple Crown spacing does not need to be preserved. That’s because it has undergone changes through the decades in this regard.
“People say, ‘It’s always been that way,’ Moss said last week during an interview with the Thoroughbred Daily News. “No, it’s been that way since 1960, which was the year that it changed to the current two-week, three-week format. But in the 1940s, when there were four Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway, Assault, Count Fleet and Citation, all four of them had four weeks between the Preakness and Belmont…It’s not as if this current spacing that we’ve had for the last 62 years was handed down in stone tablets or anything like that.”
The Triple Crown spacing certainly wasn’t handed down in stone tablets, but the spacing for the last 62 years is what most of us have known, with the exception of the pandemic-induced radical change in spacing in 2020. In 2020, the Belmont not only was moved later to June 20, its distance was shortened to 1 1/8 miles. It was the first time in history that the Belmont kicked off the Triple Crown series. The Kentucky Derby, run at its usual distance of 1 1/4 miles, was shifted from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September. And the Preakness, contested at its normal distance of 1 3/16 miles, was shifted from May 16 to Oct. 3.
“Do you think that if a horse had swept the Triple Crown as it was constructed in 2020 that the feat would be held in the same regard as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and Justify? No way,” I wrote last week.
I agree that the fields for the Preakness and Belmont would likely be better if the Triple Crown was stretched out to eight weeks from the current five-week format. But as I wrote last week, “the premise that moving the Preakness and Belmont to later dates would likely produce better fields is an acknowledgement that the two races then would be fundamentally different than they currently are, the operative word being different. In other words, it no longer would be the same Triple Crown as when it was won by Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.”
I went on to write that “when it comes to the Triple Crown, my vote is to leave it alone. But of course my vote counts for absolutely nothing.”
One person who sees eye to eye with me concerning the Triple Crown spacing is the great race-caller Dave Johnson, who has co-hosted with Bill Finley a SiriusXM radio show on racing called “Down the Stretch” for the past 16 years. The name of the show obviously stems from Johnson’s famous catch phrase, “And down the stretch they come!”
“It can’t change, and it shouldn’t change,” Johnson said in a recent interview with Amanda Duckworth for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary. “People still get involved with the Triple Crown. The national media is all over the Derby and what happens after. I would hate to see that change.
“It captures the whole country for these five weeks, especially if there is a Triple Crown on the line, but even if there isn’t. People came up to me in my building, on the street, in my diner -- people I never thought had watched a race -- and they wanted to tell me about the longshot [Rich Strike] who won the Derby this year. I loved it. If they change it, it’s going to become diminished, and it is going to become an afterthought.”
While people peppered Johnson “about the longshot who won the Derby this year,” it brings up a key question regarding this year’s Belmont. Was Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby victory a fluke?
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Considering Serling said that he sees “Rich Strike as a massive bet against in the Belmont Stakes,” it’s clear that Serling believes the colt’s Kentucky Derby win was a fluke. My feeling is it quite possibly was not a fluke. Does that mean Rich Strike is my top pick in the Belmont? Yes, it does, though I must say that I came very close to making We the People my top pick due to his apparent pace advantage.
My selections for this year’s Belmont Stakes are below:
1. Rich Strike (7-2 morning line)
2. We the People (2-1)
3. Mo Donegal (5-2)
4. Creative Minister (6-1)
IS THIS SIMILAR TO CHARISMATIC?
Sometimes a horseplayer can get better odds than they probably should when a horse starts next following a big upset. A prime example of this occurred in 1999.
Charismatic won the 1999 Kentucky Derby at 31-1. Many considered it to be a fluke. I did not, which is why I backed Charismatic monetarily in the Preakness. Because there were so many skeptics, Charismatic’s odds in the Preakness were 8-1. I felt that was an inflated price. I bet $200 to win on him. He won the Preakness, paying $18.80 for each $2 win wager or, in my case, $1,880 for my $200 win wager.
The main reason I did not regard Charismatic’s Kentucky Derby victory to be a fluke was the Beyer Speed Figure he recorded two weeks earlier when he won the Blue Grass Stakes. In 13 starts before the Blue Grass, Charismatic’s top Beyer had been a 95. All 13 starts had been in California.
Sent to Kentucky, Charismatic took a giant leap to a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in the Blue Grass. He verified that figure by duplicating it in the Kentucky Derby. Charismatic was credited with a 107 Beyer in the Preakness. Even though he went wrong toward the end of the Belmont when he finished third, he recorded another 107 in that race, which proved to be his last.
The point is that Charismatic failed to go higher than a 95 Beyer in his first 13 starts, but he then blossomed into a consistent triple-digit runner, posting figures of 108, 108, 107 and 107.
Rich Strike’s best Beyer Speed Figure in his first seven races was an 84. He then jumped to a 103 in the Kentucky Derby.
I’m looking at Rich Strike’s 103 as possibly -- I repeat, possibly -- being an indication that he (like Charismatic beginning with the Lexington) has blossomed into a consistent triple-digit runner.
Sure, Rich Strike benefited from the insanely fast early pace in the Kentucky Derby. But he was the one who got the job done, not Mo Donegal or any of the other come-from-behinders.
The opening-quarter of :21.78 was the fastest in the 148-year history of the Kentucky Derby. While the first half-mile was not the fastest in Derby history, it was a blazing :45.36.
“This is a historically fast, suicidal, radioactive Kentucky Derby pace,” NBC commentator Moss said shortly after the race.
Anybody close to that first quarter of :21.78 got burned. Indeed, check out where the first seven horses at the first quarter all were at the finish:
Position at First 1/4 Finish
Now check out where the first seven horses across the finish line were at the first quarter:
Finish Position at First Quarter
Looking at the left column in the table immediately above, it shows that the winner, Rich Strike, was 17th at the first quarter. Runner-up Epicnter was eighth at the first quarter, etc. That table shows that Rich Strike managed to outkick Epicenter and those who finished third through ninth (Zandon, Simplification, Mo Donegal, Barber Road, Tawny Port, Smile Happy and Tiz the Bomb).
A RIDE FOR THE AGES
As you probably know, Sonny Leon’s ride on Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby was a masterpiece. Leon again will be Rich Strike’s pilot in the Belmont.
Rich Strike became only the second horse in the history of the race to win from post 20. From the other 16 starters to leave from post 20, the only other to win was Big Brown in 2008.
There are those who are of the opinion that Mo Donegal might have won if his trip had been similar to Rich Strike’s. They say that while Rich Strike saved ground while skimming the rail into the lane, Mo Donegal was fanned out “10 wide leaving the second turn and was making up ground too late,” according to the Equibase chart comments.
Because Mo Donegal had come into the stretch so wide, my guess was his trip must have been measured longer than Rich Strike’s. But according to Trakus, Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby trip of 6,765 feet was 23 feet (approximately 2 1/2 lengths) farther than Mo Donegal’s.
When watching the overhead drone shot of the Kentucky Derby’s stretch run, you can see that Rich Strike was really motoring late when he overtook Epicenter and Zandon. This is one of the reasons I believe Rich Strike’s performance that day was the real deal. Granted, Epicenter and Zandon both were weakening somewhat, but it’s not as if Rich Strike lumbered past a couple of totally exhausted rivals.
The official Equibase chart lists the final time of the Kentucky Derby as 2:02.61. According to Daily Racing Form’s Formulator, which is an extremely useful tool for horseplayers that I highly recommend, Rich Strike ran his final quarter in :24.83 or :24 4/5 in fifths. That’s an excellent final quarter in a 1 1/4-mile race.
As I noted in my Kentucky Derby recap for Xpressbet.com, when it comes to final quarters in the Kentucky Derby, the king is, without question, the legendary Secretariat.
In the book “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion,” William Nack wrote that Secretariat, who rallied from far back to win by 2 1/2 lengths, ran his “final quarter-mile in :23.”
Secretariat “raced every quarter-mile in the Kentucky Derby faster than the preceding quarter,” Nack added. “His final splits were :25 1/5, :24, :23 4/5, :23 1/5 and :23. No one could remember when a horse had ever done that over a distance of a mile and a quarter. Secretariat literally ran faster from start to finish.”
Nack pointed out in his book that Secretariat was just the third horse in Kentucky Derby history to that point to have ever run the final quarter faster than :24. The other two were Whirlaway in 1941 and Proud Clarion in 1967. Whirlaway and Proud Clarion both ran their final quarter in :23 and change.
While Rich Strike did not run his final quarter in :23 and change, doing it in :24 and change certainly is to be commended.
TRAINING ELICITS POSITIVE REVIEWS
Another possible clue that Rich Strike is better than many people may realize is the way he trained up to the Kentucky Derby and, most especially, how he has trained since that race.
Rich Strike drilled four furlongs in :48.00 at Keeneland on April 16. It was the 10th-best of 106 works at the distance that morning. That was followed by a strong :59.60 move at Churchill Down on April 27.
One reason Rich Strike did not receive more support from horseplayers on the first Saturday in May despite those two fine workouts was he did not get into the Kentucky Derby from the also-eligible list until the morning before the race, thanks to Ethereal Road being withdrawn.
Rich Strike has had two splendid workouts after winning the roses. The Kentucky-bred Keen Ice colt worked four furlongs in :47.20 at Churchill Downs on May 21. It was seventh-best of 138 works at the distance that morning. Rich Strike then worked five furlongs in a bullet :59.00 between races at Churchill on May 30.
Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch, who is as sharp as they come when evaluating workouts, has given a great big thumbs up with respect to Rich Strike’s workouts and overall training for the Belmont.
“Any notion that Rich Strike has emptied the tank with his monster performance a month earlier at Churchill Downs may have been finally dismissed once and for all here Tuesday morning,” Welsch wrote. “The Kentucky Derby winner turned in an eye-catching two-mile gallop over the main track following the renovation break.
“From his sharp workout prior to leaving Churchill Downs eight days earlier to this morning’s long and spirited gallop, Rich Strike has given every indication he should be sitting on another strong effort in the finale of this year’s Triple Crown.”
PACE SCENARIO A POSITIVE FOR WE THE PEOPLE
Rich Strike was 17 lengths off the early pace in the Kentucky Derby. Will he be way back like that again in the Belmont? If he is, he almost certainly won’t win, not when the early pace in the Belmont figures to be considerably slower than it was in the Derby.
But if the Belmont pace is moderate, I expect to see Rich Strike closer early than he was in the Derby. Trainer Eric Reed seems to be expecting the same thing being a distinct possibility.
As I said earlier, I was very tempted to make We the People my top pick in the Belmont due to having an apparent pace advantage.
“The likelihood that We the People will be loose on the lead Saturday, over a track at which he just scored a front-running victory in the Peter Pan, propelled We the People to the morning-line favorite over the likes of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike and six others,” Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman wrote.
Flavien Prat was aboard We the People in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan. Prat again rides the Kentucky-bred Constitution colt in the Belmont.
In the Peter Pan, We the People seized the lead at once and went on to win in isolated grandeur by 10 1/4 lengths on a wet track listed in the chart as good. It would appear that some sort of wet surface, should that be the case, would enhance his chances in the Belmont.
We the People has won three of four lifetime starts. His lone defeat came when he was washy, did not break alertly, raced wide and finished seventh in the Grade I Arkansas Derby on April 2.
While the Belmont will be the first time that We the People has been asked to race farther than 1 1/8 miles, his pedigree suggests he could win at Saturday’s longer trip. His sire is Constitution, who is by Tapit, sire of a record-equaling four Belmont Stakes winners (Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016, Tapwrit in 2017 and Essential Quality in 2021). We the People’s dam, Letchworth, is a daughter of Tiznow, who had the class and stamina to become the only two-time winner of the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The 103 Beyer that We the People received for his Peter Pan victory is the highest figure in the Belmont Stakes field, a bit better than Rich Strike’s 101 in the Kentucky Derby. The only other triple-digit Beyer achieved by a Belmont Stakes starter is Creative Minister’s 100 for when he finished third to Early Voting and Epicenter in the Preakness.
This is another reason I like Rich Strike in the Belmont. The bar is not exactly set high Beyer-wise. Mo Donegal, who without question is a contender, has yet to record a Beyer bigger than the 96 he got for winning the Grade II Wood Memorial and for finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby.
The lack of a Beyer Speed Figure higher than a 92 is one of the reasons I’m not on the Nest bandwagon. Her trainer, Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, who also conditions Mo Donegal, has said he believes that Nest will appreciate the distance of Saturday’s Test of the Champion.
Nest is a filly. Pletcher won the 2007 Belmont with a filly, Rags to Riches, who I’ve said a jillion times should be in the Hall of Fame, though I’ve come to grips with the realization she’s probably never going to be enshrined.
I loved Rags to Riches in the Belmont, even though she was going up against Preakness hero Curlin, who would end up being voted a pair of Horse of the Year titles.
Let’s use the time machine for a small portion of what I wrote about the 2007 Belmont Stakes for Xpressbet.com:
“Can’t you picture it? Trainer Todd Pletcher is currently zero for 28 in Triple Crown races. What a story if Pletcher gets his first victory in a Triple Crown event with a filly in the Belmont.
“How about this scenario? Saturday afternoon, Rags to Riches proves she’s great by becoming the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in more than 100 years. Then, that same evening, we can watch a movie about probably the greatest filly of all time. ESPN Original Entertainment is scheduled to premiere ‘Ruffian’ Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
“Rags to Riches is a filly with a ton of talent who is bred to relish 1 1/2 miles.
“Not only is Rags to Riches by Belmont winner A.P. Indy and a half-sister to Belmont winner Jazil, she is a granddaughter of Belmont winner Seattle Slew. And Rags to Riches’ sire is a grandson of Belmont winner Secretariat.
“Seattle Slew, the sire of A.P. Indy, took the Belmont in 1977 to become the sport’s first -- and still only -- undefeated Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew also sired Belmont winner Swale.
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what Secretariat did in the 1973 Belmont. Secretariat also sired a Belmont winner in Risen Star.
“Additionally, Steve Haskin of The Blood-Horse pointed out this week that Rags to Riches’ broodmare sire, Deputy Minister, sired a Belmont Stakes winner in Touch Gold.
“With the blood of so many Belmont winners coursing through Rags to Riches’ veins, it could bode well for the filly this Saturday.
“I have great respect for Curlin, particularly in light of what we have seen from him in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But, after giving the matter much thought, I have come to the conclusion that Rags to Riches is going to become the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in 102 years.”
That’s exactly what Rags to Riches did. Despite stumbling at the start and racing wide, Rags to Riches prevailed by a head. Curlin had to settle for second. I bet $1,000 to win on Rags to Riches. She returned $10.60 for each $2 win wager.
PENULTIMATE NTRA TOP THREE-YEAR-OLD POLL
Next week, following the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, will be the final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll of 2022.
Epicenter has a slim lead in the poll this week over Early Voting after these two had been tied at the top for the past two weeks. Neither is entered in the Belmont Stakes.
Four horses entered in the Belmont are on the Top 10 in this week’s poll. Rich Strike ranks the highest at No. 3, while Mo Donegal is No. 7, Creative Minister is No. 8 and Nest is No. 10.
This week’s Top 10 on the NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 271 Epicenter (11)
2. 269 Early Voting (10)
3. 215 Rich Strike (8)
4. 208 Zandon
5. 164 Jack Christopher (1)
6. 131 Secret Oath
7. 121 Mo Donegal
8. 58 Creative Minister
9. 48 Simplification
10. 35 Nest
The Top 10 on the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week is below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 261 Country Grammer (18)
2. 253 Letruska (9)
3. 203 Life Is Good (3)
4. 170 Speaker’s Corner
5. 164 Hot Rod Charlie
6. 149 Olympiad
7. 135 Jackie’s Warrior
8. 72 Golden Pal
9. 57 Express Train
10. 49 Flightline