Interest down for the 2021 Belmont Stakes for a variety of reasons
Generally speaking, there is quite a bit of excitement leading up to the Belmont Stakes. Prior to 2020 the Belmont Stakes has been the last leg of the Triple Crown at a grueling mile and a half distance, but last year it led off the Triple Crown series at a mile and an eighth because of the pandemic. Despite that, there was a lot of excitement leading into the race, which Tiz the Law won, since it was one of the first major events following the postponement of all sports due to Covid, and it was an anomaly in the usual Triple Crown schedule, leading off series. And in years prior to that the excitement was raised due to the race taking place in America’s biggest city, the history of the race, and of course the possibility of crowning a Triple Crown champion.
No Triple Crown shot
Since 2000 ten horses have gone to Belmont hoping to complete the feat, although only Justify and American Pharaoh succeeded. Prior to American Pharaoh the last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. Yet even in years when there was no chance for a Triple Crown winner, horseplayers, the media and fans still got energized, wondering which horse and jockey would be able to win the historic event. The fact it produced some major upsets at very high odds also added to the intrigue. Since 2000, nine horses won the race at odds of 15/1 or more and two horses, D’aTara and Sarava, won the race as the longest shots on board. Birdstone, who beat Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones in 2004, was over 30/1 odds when he charged down the stretch to win.
In 2021, there seems to be little enthusiasm for this race. Only eight horses are running, and the post- position draw announcement drew little mainstream media attention. The lack of a possible Triple Crown winner is obviously a big factor for the lack of interest, but the bigger factor is the controversy surrounding Bob Baffert and the positive substance test for Medina Spirit.
The racing world was abuzz when Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby, given that both American Pharaoh and Justify were trained by Bob Baffert and this seemed to represent another realistic chance for a Triple Crown winner, but that excitement was soon dampened when it was announced that Medina Spirit failed a drug test and tested positive for banned substance. Baffert more or less shrugged it off since the amount of betamethasone in Medina Spirit's blood was only 21 picograms and he started making outrageous reasons for why the horse could have tested positive including that he could have eaten hay that was urinated on by a groom who had it in his system. He also claimed that the outrage over the positive test was due to "cancel culture". Baffert also suggested Medina Spirit would be negative in a second sample. That never materialized, however, as this week Medina Spirit's second test confirmed the banned substance and Bob Baffert has been suspended for two years in Kentucky.
While Baffert was able to run Medina Spirit and another horse at the Preakness, it was already announced prior to that race that the New York Racing Association (NYRA) was banning Bob Baffert from the state, meaning that even had Medina Spirit won the Preakness, he could not have competed in the Belmont Stakes. No doubt that announcement also led to the lack of interest in the Belmont Stakes. And rather than admitting any culpability, Baffert now blames the positive test on an anti-fungal ointment called Otamax that as used on Medina Spirit for dermatitis, which he said he only just found out contained betamethasone as one of is ingredients.
If this was a one off, then racing fans and horsemen may be more forgiving of the hall of fame trainer, but Baffert has a history of doping allegations and he has always gotten off with few repercussions. Last year Baffert was suspended from racing in Arkansas after two of his horses, Charlatan and Gamine were found to have lidocaine in their system, a numbing agent that is often used in surgeries on humans. And even Justify was found to have scopolamine in his system. The racing boards accepted that Justify consumed the banned substance accidentally when he ate jimson weed, which grows naturally in California, but even horsemen at the time were suspicious if that was the true reason and wanted Justify excluded from racing in the Kentucky Derby. And given these latest infractions many are now wondering how many other horses were ever given something purposely to improve their chances of win.
When baseball players were caught using steroids, it turned the league on its head. Every successful baseball player was closely scrutinized, and the controversy turned many purists away from the sport. It took years for fans to return to the ballparks after the incidents with Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and no doubt a lot of horse racing fans may decide that they have no interest in this sport until it is proven that it is run cleanly. And with horse racing it's even worse than what happened in baseball or other professional sports because in the years that steroid use was common in baseball, gambling on sports in the U.S. outside of Nevada was still illegal, but horse racing has always been a sport one could gamble on and betting is an integral part of the industry. Without betting, horse racing would cease to exist, but many horseplayers may be reluctant to wager if they now somehow must factor the possibility of a horse being doped along with their usual handicapping tools.
Moreover, the health and safety of horses is still an issue at the forefront of the industry and horses are still breaking down for various reasons throughout the United States. California and all the Stronach tracks now ban the use of race day medications including Lasix, and considering Baffert is stationed in California and races mostly in that jurisdiction, it brings even more frustration and confusion to the situation and has many wondering why California isn’t responding to the positive tests. One would think that California would be the first to ban Baffert from training in California given the spotlight on those tracks, but it appears like with most elite athletes, he is being given a pass by the state racing board because losing him as a trainer would negatively affect the industry there. As one horse racing analyst said to me "like AIG was too big to fail during the financial crisis, Baffert is just too big and important to the financial success of California racing to ban or penalize severely."
In any case, it’s very unfortunate that the focus on the Belmont Stakes will be the exclusion of Baffert horses, (even though Baffert claims he had no intention of running any horses regardless), rather than on the eight horses, jockeys, owners and trainers running in the race.
The 2021 Belmont field
Essential Quality (2-1 ML Odds) was the Kentucky Derby favorite and ran a decent race despite being bumped and going wide, yet finished a close up 4th. The Godolphin horse, who won five straight races before the Derby could bounce back and get to winning ways for jockey Luis Saez.
Rombauer (3-1 ML Odds) won the Preakness with a huge charge in the stretch and recorded the best Beyer figure of any horse in the field in any race, with that win. He lost to Essential Quality twice before that and trainer Michael McCarthy should be proud and excited for the chance to repeat.
Hot Rod Charlie (7-2) ran the perfect race in the Derby and finished just ahead of Essential Quality in the Run for the Roses. Jockey Flavian Prat has opted for him rather than Rombauer, despite winning the Preakness on Rombauer.
And Rock Your World (9-2), who went into the Derby 3 for 3, lost all chance in the Derby after being squeezed way back at the start. Many believe in an 8-horse field he has a legitimate chance to get back to winning ways.
The other four horses are Bourbonic (15-1) and Known Agenda (6-1), both who showed little in the Kentucky Derby, France Go de Ina (30-1), who showed nothing in the Preakness, and Overtook (20-1), who has shown little other than a maiden win three races ago. They will take the others on, but as we've seen the Belmont Stakes often produces upsets. It’s doubtful any horse will pay close to the 70/1 odds Sarava paid, but if one of the above four win, there is still a good chance at decent odds. Top New York trainer Todd Pletcher (who was suspended for 45 days by the New York Racing Board for doping, but has been clean since) saddles both Known Agenda and Overtook.
On paper, this race looks intriguing and should be one that generates a lot of interest and excitement, since any of the four favorites have a legitimate chance to win, but that won’t be the focus thanks to the Derby doping scandal. For anyone interested, I wagered on Rock Your World in the Derby and I'll give him another chance in this race since traffic shouldn't come into play with the small field.