The morning after he watched his colt ruin any chance of Belmont Park playing host to a Triple Crown coronation for another season, trainer Keith Desormeaux and his confidence were as buoyant as the indefatigable son of Curlin pulling him around the shedrow.
He was less than 24 hours removed from watching his younger brother, Kent, guide his charge Exaggerator to a 3 1/2 -length triumph in the Preakness Stakes, an outing that served as both the first classic win for the elder Desormeaux and the first career loss for his previously unbeaten nemesis, Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.
In typical fashion after a career pinnacle, Desormeaux was asked what was next — specifically, if the bay colt he picked out at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale could succeed in the marathon task he will face on June 11. And in that moment, the grin on the Louisiana native’s face further stretched. Because, in his mind, Exaggerator answered that question the moment he hit the ground.
“I’m not trying to be biased but I said before, pedigree wins the Belmont (Stakes),” Desormeaux said, referencing the 1 1/2 mile final leg of the Triple Crown taking place Saturday. “And Exaggerator has the pedigree in his favor. That mile and half deal is more about pedigree than what I’m going to do in the mornings.”
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There are intangibles aplenty that go into winning any race at any distance at any track. But when it comes to getting a horse to prevail going the 12-furlong journey the Belmont Stakes demands, bloodlines have indeed proven key.
There are some horses that don’t live up to their pedigree and those that run beyond their pedigree, there are exceptions to every rule. But I certainly believe the pedigree is a big part of it.
Two-time Belmont Stakes-winning trainer Todd Pletcher
While debating which sophomores have the stamina to handle going 1 1/4 miles for the first time is annual rite of Kentucky Derby season, brilliant horses have shown pedigree can be outrun going 10 furlongs. Big Brown and California Chrome, winners of the 2008 and 2014 Kentucky Derbies, respectively, were each by stallions who never won beyond six furlongs while 2004 hero Smarty Jones and 2002 victor War Emblem had their respective sires’ winning distances max out at 1 1/16 miles and one mile.
All of the above were dual classic winners who, for a variety of reasons, all suffered defeat when it came time to travel those extra two, gut-wrenching furlongs. Whether each was hampered by perceived premature race moves, less than ideal pace scenarios, or the grind of the five-week odyssey catching up to them in the Belmont, trying to overcome those circumstances while stretched to the limits of their bloodlines proved a futile combination.
“My experience is they’re either bred for it or they’re not and either they can get the trip or they don’t,” said WinStar Farm president and CEO Elliott Walden, a former trainer who saddled Victory Gallop to win the 1998 Belmont Stakes. “You can’t make a horse go a mile and a half. I mean, you can obviously make them by putting them in the race but you can’t make them successful.
“I think horses are suited to different strengths and (1 1/2 miles) is a little over 10 percent of a difference in distance (compared to 1 1/4 miles). There is such a small degree of error when you can win a race by a head or even if you get beat two lengths. California Chrome, what did he get beat, less than three lengths over a mile and a half? Think what percentage of the race that was. It’s miniscule. I think there are certain things that play into it but for the most part, I think pedigree plays out the most.”
The Belmont Stakes — which is the only Grade I race run at 1 1/2 miles on dirt in America — has been as rewarding to those with more stamina than precocity in their pedigree as it has been unforgiving to the other side of the coin. Since 2000, nine Belmont Stakes winners have been by stallions that prevailed over 10 or 12 furlongs, and all but one during that span were by sires who won going at least 1 1/8 miles.
The lone exception to that bunch was 2010 winner Drosselmeyer, whose sire, Distorted Humor, never won beyond a mile but had already proven his offspring could stay, having sired 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide. And if ever there was a horse born for a singular test, it was champion filly Rags to Riches — a daughter of 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy and a half sister to 2006 Belmont winner Jazil — who called upon all her distance class after going to her knees at the break to outlast eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the 2007 Belmont.
“If you look at our two winners in the Belmont, you see Rags to Riches and … there might not be any stronger pedigree for the mile and a half than what she had,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who conditioned Rags to Riches as well as 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice. “That was a contributing factor to ultimately deciding to try her in it. And then you look at Palace Malice, being by Curlin who was a proven horse at the classic distances.
“There are some horses that don’t live up to their pedigree and those that run beyond their pedigree, there are exceptions to every rule. But I certainly believe the pedigree is a big part of it.”
Part of the reason bloodlines reign so supreme in the Belmont is the fact that the lack of 12-furlong tests on the main tracks in North America leave distance-loving runners with fewer options. In 2005, trainer Dale Romans saddled Nolan’s Cat, a maiden whose dam’s sire was 1989 Belmont winner Easy Goer, to a third place finish in the Belmont while 28-to-1 longshot Commissioner, a son of A.P. Indy out of mare by 1997 Belmont winner Touch Gold, came within a head of besting Tonalist in 2014.
Citing that both were “bred for the distance”, trainer Dallas Stewart confirmed Saturday he is going to take two swings at this year’s test with recent maiden winners Seeking the Soul and Forever d’Oro.
“I think that … there are horses that aren’t as accomplished that run in it, but they would be if they’d had more mile and a half races to run in before or after the Belmont,” said Romans, who will saddle Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine and Grade I winner Brody’s Cause in this year’s Belmont. “Like Nolan’s Cat. That’s the only reason I ran him is I knew that he would like the mile and a half. Where else can you run a mile and a half with a horse you know wants to go that far?”