By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The 2022 Triple Crown winds down on Saturday with the 154th running of the historic $1.5 million Belmont S. (G1) at Belmont Park.
Held over the testing distance of 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont has attracted a small but competitive field of eight horses for its 2022 edition. Four of the entrants are proven graded stakes winners, while the remaining four have placed at the graded stakes level. You can make a case for anyone to finish in the top three, so there are a lot of handicapping possibilities to consider.
The biggest challenge might be deciding what to do with morning line favorite #1 We the People (2-1). If you excuse a troubled seventh-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (G1), the son of Constitution is unbeaten and unchallenged in three starts. He was especially impressive in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan S. (G3) at Belmont Park last month, leading all the way and drawing off down the homestretch to dominate by 10 1/4 lengths.
We the People finished fast in the Peter Pan (sprinting the final three furlongs in :37.02) and has the pedigree to stretch out over 1 1/2 miles. He also looms as the only clear speed horse in the Belmont field, so what’s to stop We the People from parading along on an easy lead and winning the Belmont in gate-to-wire fashion?
Well, if we want to nitpick, there might be a chink or two in We the People’s armor. His three victories haven’t come against the toughest competition (there weren’t any graded stakes winners in the fields), and We the People’s Peter Pan romp came over a sealed track that may have aided his pacesetting style.
We the People clearly has talent, and the fact he’s likely to secure an uncontested lead means he’s a must-use runner in multi-race wagers. But he’s not necessarily the most likely winner.
Who can defeat We the People? Kentucky Derby (G1) hero #4 Rich Strike (7-2) is bound to be draw support after winning the Run for the Roses at odds of 80-1. Rich Strike’s upset arguably wasn’t quite as shocking as his odds indicate; he’d previously broken his maiden in dominant fashion at Churchill Downs, and improvement over the winter may have been hidden by the fact Rich Strike was competing over the synthetic Tapeta track at Turfway Park.
Rich Strike was full of run down the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby, gaining four lengths through the final furlong to beat Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Epicenter by three-quarters of a length. But it’s worth noting the early pace of the Derby wasly historically fast, so Rich Strike benefited from a pace meltdown that saw late runners occupy the majority of the top finishing positions. With a slower pace expected for the Belmont, Rich Strike figures to find himself at a tactical disadvantage.
Rather than support Rich Strike on top, I’m going to throw my support behind #6 Mo Donegal (5-2), who overcame a slow start and an extremely wide run into the homestretch to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 3 3/4 lengths. Obviously the fast pace was beneficial to Mo Donegal as well, but he’s shown more tactical speed in the past than Rich Strike, and I’m optimism Mo Donegal can stay reasonably close to the expected slow pace on Saturday.
Overall, Mo Donegal’s form is rock-solid. Unlike We the People, he’s repeatedly proven himself against tough competition. In the 1 1/8-mile Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct last fall, Mo Donegal settled a couple lengths behind pedestrian fractions before rallying to defeat future Blue Grass S. (G1) winner Zandon by a nose. And in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G2) two months ago, Mo Donegal rocketed the final three furlongs in a blazing :35.61 to get up and beat next-out Preakness S. (G1) winner Early Voting by a neck .
Facing only seven rivals in the Belmont should suit Mo Donegal just fine, since he’s almost certain to get a better trip than he did in the Derby. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Belmont three times (including twice with Kentucky Derby starters who skipped the Preakness), so I’m optimism the stage is set for Mo Donegal to deliver a winning run.
I’m also keen to support Mo Donegal’s Pletcher-trained stablemate #3 Nest (8-1), runner-up in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) after waiting in traffic at a key moment around the far turn. Nest was gaining ground late against the victorious Secret Oath, who enjoyed an unencumbered outside rally around the far turn, so it’s fair to wonder if Nest could have challenged for victory with a clear run.
Nest previously dominated the Ashland S. (G1) at Keeneland by 8 1/4 lengths, so we know she has serious talent. As a daughter of two-time Horse of the Year and elite sire Curlin out of the AP Indy mare Marion Ravenwood, Nest is a full-sister to Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner Idol and figures to relish racing 1 1/2 miles. She also has the tactical speed to enjoy a forwardly placed trip in Saturday’s largely paceless field. Throw in the fact Pletcher won the 2007 Belmont with Kentucky Oaks winners Rags to Riches, and there’s no reason to think Nest can’t challenge at a fair price in the Triple Crown’s final leg.
1st: Mo Donegal
3rd: We the People
4th: Rich Strike
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as “Keelerman”) is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.