They call it “The Test of the Champion.”

The grueling 1 1/2-mile challenge for 3-year-olds thoroughbreds proves who has the crop’s best combination of speed and stamina. It’s the all-important third leg of the coveted Triple Crown, where a lucky horse has the chance to be immortalized as an all-time great if he previously won the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Preakness Stakes (G1). The Belmont Stakes (G1) is –

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Screeeech. Stop the record. Rewind.

All of that is far from the case this year after the horse racing world was flipped upside down and sideways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The year 2020 will forever be remembered as one of the most abnormal times that our generation will experience. Running the Belmont Stakes as the first leg of the Triple Crown – and at a reduced distance of 1 1/8 miles – is fittingly as abnormal as it gets for a game built on rich traditions.

Drastic times call for drastic measures, so to protect a group that hasn’t been put through the rigors of the Kentucky Derby trail, reducing the Belmont Stakes’ distance was the correct move in the face of disrespecting tradition. The horses do and should always come first, and many have experienced longer-than-usual layoffs due to a combined lack of training and racing during the pandemic.

If you didn’t know by now, the Kentucky Derby was rescheduled from May 2 to September 5, and the Preakness soon followed suit, moving to October 3 and serving as the final leg of the Triple Crown. Squeeze in the Haskell Stakes (G1) and the Travers Stakes (G1) this summer, and you have an unprecedented schedule.

Will a horse win this year’s rare Triple Crown? The first step is to win the the Belmont Stakes, so let’s dive into the race analysis!

California Chrome loses the 2014 Belmont Stakes to Tonalist in front of an estimated 120,000 fans. This year’s race will be run in front of no spectators. (Credit: Michael Spector)

Tiz the Law Leads the Way

Not only has this year been crazy because of the pandemic, but with the revised schedule, many of the first half of the year’s big prospects have disappeared in advance of the Belmont.

Most notably, two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert won’t have a single entry. His two Arkansas Derby (G1) winners, Nadal and Charlatan, will both miss it due to injuries. The one-two runners from the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Honor A. P. and the Baffert-trained Authentic, also won’t enter because this year’s Santa Anita Derby was held on June 6, and neither one’s connections would return on only two weeks’ rest. Another top prospect, Breeder’s Futurity (G1) winner Maxfield, was also going to skip, though injuries derailed his season anyway.

So where does that leave us?

With only one truly top-tier, proven winner: the Florida Derby (G1) champion Tiz the Law. Winner of the local Champagne Stakes (G1) as a juvenile, Tiz the Law got a bad ride when running third in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) to end his 2-year old campaign. Strong wins this year in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and the Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream Park, have the New York-bred primed for a big performance as he returns to the Empire State.

The Barclay Tagg trainee comes off of a nearly three-month layoff, the biggest doubt facing the likely odds-on favorite. For Tagg and owner Sackatoga Stable, this year’s Belmont is a chance at redemption. They brought another New York-bred, Funny Cide, to the Belmont 17 years ago with a chance at winning the Triple Crown but were thwarted by eventual super-sire Empire Maker. This year’s likely heavy favorite hasn’t disappointed in recent workouts.

“He’s a versatile horse,” said Tiz the Law’s regular rider Manny Franco. “He can be there on the pace or sit off, so I can do whatever I want. He’s run here before and won and I think he likes the track, so that’s to our advantage.”

Tiz the Law winning the Florida Derby in front of a spectator-less grandstand (Credit: Coglianese Photos / Lauren King)

The 2020 Belmont Field

A medium-sized field of ten will compete in front of a public-free grandstand for the first time in the race’s existence. Personally, it will be one of the weirdest races that I’ve ever watched on TV. I’ve stood there with 90,000 people to see American Pharoah and Justify win Triple Crowns, and to witness Big Brown and California Chrome lose their attempts with an estimated 120,000 fans in attendance at Big Sandy.

Who can upset Tiz the Law in this year’s Belmont?

The field includes (horse with trainer & jockey and Morning Line odds):

  1. Tap It to Win (Mark Casse, John Velazquez) 6/1 
  2. Sole Volante (Patrick Biancone, Luca Panici) 9/2
  3. Max Player (Linda Rice, Joel Rosario) 15/1
  4. Modernist (Bill Mott, Junior Alvarado) 15/1
  5. Farmington Road (Pletcher, Javier Castellano) 15/1
  6. Fore Left (Doug O’Neill, Jose Ortiz) 30/1
  7. Jungle Runner (Steve Asmussen, Reylu Gutierrez) 50/1
  8. Tiz the Law (Tagg, Franco) 6/5
  9. Dr Post (Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, Jr.) 5/1
  10. Pneumatic (Asmussen, Ricardo Santana, Jr.) 8/1

Many will poo-poo this field as just another Kentucky Derby prep, and they might be right. With the Hopeful Stakes (G1) winner Basin skipping the race to focus instead on the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland in July, there are no other Grade 1 winners in the field besides Tiz the Law.

The closest it gets might be Modernist, who won a division of the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds in gate-to-wire fashion. He next ran third in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and has been training steadily since then.

Modernist winning one of the divisions of the Risen Star (Credit: Hodges Photography / Lou Hodges, Jr.)

Max Player captured the Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct way back on February 1. Rice has breezed him 11 times since, as he was originally pointing to the Wood Memorial (G2) at the beginning of April before the pandemic forced its cancelation.

“He hasn’t run in five months and I had spaced his works out every two weeks during the pandemic, having no target in sight and not knowing what we were pointing towards,” Rice said.

Max Player winning the Withers (Credit: NYRA  / Chelsea Durand)

Sole Volante won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) on February 8 at Tampa Bay Downs and next had a runner-up finish in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). He most recently came streaking late for an allowance win at Gulfstream Park on June 10 as a prep for the Belmont.

He has a recency edge over his competition since he raced just 10 days ago, but he will need to fire off of short rest.

Sole Volante winning the Sam F. Davis (Credit: SV Photography)

Okay, so the best chances on paper to upset Tiz the Law are three horses who have each only won a Grade 2 or Grade 3 race and have questions surrounding them. What’s left after them?

Well, there is always Todd Pletcher. He is dangerous in this race, having won it three times in his illustrious training career, and brings two prospects to this year’s edition: the lightly-raced Dr Post and the late-running Farmington Road.

Dr Post most recently won the Unbridled Stakes at Gulfstream Park last month and takes a major step up in class to Grade 1 company here. Pletcher thinks that he’s up to the challenge, though.

“He showed some versatility already, breaking his maiden at 7 furlongs and coming back in a stake in his second start of the year going a mile and 1/16, encountered a lot of traffic that day, and was still able to win. He seems to have moved forward in his training since then.”

Dr Post winning the Unbridled (Credit: Coglianese Photos / Ryan Thompson)

Farmington Road has yet to win a stakes and has only been good enough to get up in the last strides for fourth in the Risen Star and the Arkansas Derby.

“The main thing is getting a track that suits that style and an honest pace,” Pletcher said. “That’s what he really needs.”

Farmington Road winning an allowace at Tampa Bay Downs (Credit: SV Photography)

Jungle Runner is a major longshot who finished eighth last out in the Arkansas Derby and can be dismissed in this spot.

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Who to Play in the Belmont?

This may not be the year to look for bombs in the Belmont Stakes, as Tiz the Law stands head and shoulders above this field on both class and speed figures. He will likely be 4/5 or 3/5 odds when they leave the gate, so if you agree that he’s the most likely winner, then how can we profit on exotic wagers on this race?

Playing Tiz the Law alone in the win spot is a start, but we need to go heavy on some key horses underneath him. Those key horses will be Tap It to Win and Pneumatic.

Tap It to Win absolutely blazed up the local dirt in his last race on June 4, winning gate-to-wire while going the one-turn 1 1/16-mile configuration. A quick turnaround in only 16 days should be no concern for Hall-of-Fame trainer Mark Casse, who has proven successful in the past when using this angle with his top horses. He also won last year’s Belmont Stakes with Sir Winston.

Tap It to Win has been highly regarded since he broke his maiden impressively at Saratoga last August on the Travers day undercard. After that, he finished 10th in two stakes to finish his juvenile campaign, but he improved in the offseason and has two straight wins in 2020. The 97 Beyer speed figure that he earned in his most recent win makes him very competitive here, and he is likely to get on the lead and set the pace leaving from the rail. It is also possible that Fore Left takes the lead on his outside leaving post 6. If that happens, Velazquez on Tap It to Win may be fine letting Fore Left clear and set up shop behind the leader. 

Tap It to Win before breaking his maiden (Credit: Michael Spector)

We are likely to see Tap It to Win leading as they turn for home while Fore Left fades, as he is better going shorter. All along to the outside Tiz the Law will be stalking the pace sitting in the catbird seat leaving from post 8. Tiz the Law should be coming up the outside of Tap It to Win and will likely not be able to hold off Tiz the Law in deep stretch. I’m betting that Tap It to Win will be good enough to hold off everyone else, though. A large straight “Tiz the Law over Tap It to Win” exacta will be my major play.

I’m really hoping that Tap It to Win is not the second choice in the wagering, but if he is, then I’ll play a heavy trifecta using a longshot in the third spot, like Pneumatic. He ran well last out to get third in a competitive Matt Winn Stakes (G3) for his first career loss, as he broke his maiden and won a first-level allowance at Oaklawn Park in February and April.

Pneumatic has stayed in form, and Asmussen putting him in this spot (plus moving Basin away) is a vote of confidence. He will be attending the pace and should be able to hang around for a piece late. On deeper tickets, I will also throw in the late-running Sole Volante to hit the board underneath as the best closer in the race.

Pneumatic winning at Oaklawn Park (Credit: Coady Photography)

My final tickets and wagering strategy are available now in the Inside Track to the Belmont Stakes Wagering Guide. I’m also going to be part of the America’s Best Racing (ABR) live-stream on Twitter and Facebook, along with the rest of the Racing Dudes team, so check that out!

If you’re not already, please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and join me live on the ABR stream as we toast to the weirdest Belmont Stakes in history.

Good luck on Belmont Day!