Derby winner Rich Strike faces another stiff test in Belmont
After so many things went right for Rich Strike to win the Kentucky Derby, he'll likely need even more good fortune at the Belmont Stakes with so much stacked against him.
Rich Strike won't go off at odds of more than 80-1 this time, but even after bypassing the Preakness to run in the final leg of the Triple Crown, he's not expected to be the horse to beat in the field of eight. That distinction belongs to 2-1 morning line favorite We the People, a newcomer to the Triple Crown trail who could set the pace in the 1½-mile race and thrive if it rains in New York on Saturday.
If it's a wet track similar to We the People's romp to victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park last month, trainer Mark Casse doesn't like anyone else's chances.
"We're all going to be running for second, even the Derby winner," said Casse, who's set to saddle Golden Glider in the Belmont. Golden Glider finished a distant second to We the People in the Peter Pan on May 14.
Rich Strike ran past 19 other horses in shocking fashion on May 7 to become the second biggest long shot to win the Derby. Even that took myriad factors to happen: sharp training at Churchill Downs the week before, the withdrawal of Ethereal Road to get into the field, a hot pace, the perfect trip and the kind of acceleration he had never shown before in a race.
"Is that his lifetime best? I don't know," retired jockey Jerry Bailey said. "History will only tell us that. But I think he's going to have to run better than that, actually, to win."
That's in part because horses don't typically run as fast early in the longer Belmont, which is known as the "test of a champion." The 154th edition of the race is particularly shaping up for a plodding pace with We the People looking like the only speed horse going up against Rich Strike and six other closers on a big, sandy track that doesn't tend to favor late charges.
"The mile and a half is just an entirely different race," said Casse, who won the Belmont three years ago with Sir Winston. "You don't want to be too far away."
The onus for that is on jockeys, and most notable Rich Strike's Sonny Leon, whose navigation through traffic at the Derby will go down as one of the best rides in the history of the sport.
"We never expected to get the trip we got because to pass 19 horses is asking an awful lot," trainer Eric Reed said this week. "Hats off to him. That's one of the best rides ever."
But Leon has never ridden at Belmont Park before and is not scheduled for a mount on the main, dirt track before getting aboard Rich Strike in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
Having seen Calvin Borel at the top of his game in 2009 misjudge when to make his move with Derby winner Mine That Bird and other jockeys make costly mistakes in this race, Bailey believes it's a big task for Leon to undertake.
"He's got a lot to think about," said Bailey, who is now an NBC Sports analyst. "The Belmont's different because you can actually affect the trip you get. In the Derby, they just outran him, so he just played the hand that was dealt to him. He can pretty much be in control of his own hand if he chooses to be because he's not going to be nearly as far back, so he's going to have to decide where he wants his horse early in the race and then when it comes time to move, when he actually moves, based upon how fast -- or in this case maybe how slow they've been going."
It looks to be a slow go. Among the others in the race, including Derby horses Mo Donegal and Barber Road, two back from the Preakness in Creative Minister and Skippylongstocking and filly Nest, there's a lack of early speed.
That appears to set up perfectly for We the People to go wire-to-wire if jockey Flavien Prat can control the race.
"Flavien Prat, does he slow the pace down as much as he can and then try and have so much left at the end they'll never catch him?" Bailey said. "Does he try and spread the race out somewhere in the middle and get a cushion? A lot of it is going to depend on how Flavien decides to run the race."