Chasing the Triple Crown

The post positions are drawn, the horses are in New York, and all we can do now is wait and count the seconds until we get to see if history will be made and I’ll Have Another can become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

For bettors, the biggest decision is a simple one — are you with him or against him? With his morning line odds set at 4/5, and the public likely to bet him down further, you can’t afford to hedge your bets on him, so it’s all-or-nothing this time around.

To help you decide which side you fall on here are four relevant Belmont Stakes trends to ponder. I’ll warn you in advance — if you really want I’ll Have Another to win the Triple Crown then you probably won’t want to read any further because these trends aren’t particularly kind to him.

Affirmed was the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and he did it in 1978. In the 34 years since,

I’ll Have Another will be the 12th horse to try to win the Belmont after previously winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Needless to say, all 11 of those horses — some of them incredibly good horses who went on to have brilliant careers — fell short in the Belmont.

Real Quiet came the closest in 1998 when he was beaten by a nose. Others, like Big Brown in 2008, have been beaten soundly.

There are a lot of ways you could explain this. For one, the horses have had to run two races in a row very aggressively to win, and now they are coming back on short rest to face the toughest test of their careers. It’s very tough for a horse to put forth a top effort three times in five weeks in long races, and that’s increasingly a challenge as horses are bred more and more for speed
over stamina.

On top of that, every other horse and rider in the field is focused entirely on beating them, so they are running with a giant target on their back. Many horses in the race are fresher, and they have specifically been aimed at this race.

It all adds up to a whole lot of history for I’ll Have Another to overcome. He’s a very nice horse, but nicer ones than him — or at least ones that have gone on to prove themselves to be nicer — have failed.

Running in an earlier Triple Crown race

To interpret the trends here you need to decide what type of time frame you like to look at. In the last 18 years, 13 Belmont winners have previously run in at least one of the two earlier Triple Crown races. That’s good news for I’ll Have Another, and for Dullahan, Optimizer, and Union Rags as well.

Four of the five horses that had no previous experience have won in the last five years, though. Summer Bird in 2009 is the only one in that shorter time frame that had run before — a lousy showing in the Derby.

It’s up to you to determine whether the change in the tide recently is just the coincidence or the start of a new trend.

Running in both previous Triple Crown races

Only I’ll Have Another and Optimizer are iron horses this year. Recent history indicates that this feat of stamina works against I’ll Have Another’s chances.

Of the last 10 Belmont winners only one — Afleet Alex in 2005 — had previously run in both races. Last year we saw three iron horses in the Belmont, but the best any of them could do is finish fifth — in a field much weaker than this one.

Longshots paying off, favorites aren’t I’ll Have Another is 4-5 in the morning line, so there obviously will be some real long shots in this field.

With the favorite looking so good, and Dullahan and Union Rags seeming formidable at lower odds as well, it can be easy to assume that longshots aren’t worth more than a passing look here.

Recent history suggests another story, though.

In the last 16 years of the race we have seen six winners pay off with at least 25/1 odds. Last year’s winner, Ruler on Ice, offered the lowest payoff of that group, while Sarava in 2002 was the biggest payday at 70/1.

I wouldn’t recommend the strategy, but if you had bet on every horse in the field at 20/1 or over the last 16 years you would be comfortably ahead right now.

Favorites have not been nearly so generous to their backers. Typically, the horse with the lowest odds win about one third of all races. In the last 16 years, though, only two favorites have come out on top. That’s yet another reason to be pessimistic about our chances of witnessing history.

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