ELMONT, N.Y., June 4 (UPI) -- Nobody understands me when I tell them that we all want War Emblem to lose. All of us horse players, that is.
We love it when somebody spoils a Triple Crown at Belmont. And I'm not even talking about the pros. The professional gamblers at Belmont Park -- which includes some of the greatest horse handicappers in the world -- just wait for the Belmont Stakes, especially in years when there's a chance at a Triple Crown winner. They're like "don't pass" players at the craps table. Nobody likes 'em, because they're standing on the rail yelling "Load up that tote board with War Emblem bets, people, because they're ALL gonna be betting against him."
Here's why. June 8th is one of those rare days in horse racing when a majority of the bets will be placed by amateurs who are just out to have a good time. That has the potential to skew the odds so far in the direction of a favorite that the payoffs on an upset can be substantial. For the old-timers at Belmont, sick to death of the massive off-site pari-mutuel wagering that has evened the odds out on every race, it's like being in the glorious 1980s again.
And look at what a gift the Belmont Stakes is. It's the longest big-money horse race in America, a full two-and-a-half furlongs longer than the Preakness, and the sternest test any of these 3-year-olds has ever faced. Just at the moment when the public is ready to dole out big money, ANYTHING can happen.
Thoroughbreds are just like world-class track-and-field athletes. A difference in distance can turn a champion into a chump. The reason there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, when Affirmed did it, is that it's just too dang hard to run a full mile and a half without tuckering out, losing concentration, or reaching a point of sheer terror where the horse is wondering "Is this guy gonna kill me?"
It happened three years in a row -- in 1997, 1998 and 1999 -- when a horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but got beat at Belmont. I especially remember the 1997 race. Touch Gold had ALMOST beaten Silver Charm in the Preakness even after all but falling down coming out of the starting gate, so everyone had a pretty good idea that the extra distance was going to make it possible for an upset -- and, of course, we got one.
In 1998 Real Quiet was ready to take the Triple Crown when Victory Gallop nipped him at Belmont. And in 1999 Charismatic would have won the Triple Crown but was actually injured DURING the Belmont Stakes, which was won by Lemon Drop Kid. People thought it was a fluke. On the other hand, this is the kind of grueling race that does injure a horse.
And I talked to several bettors last weekend who think it's gonna happen again, thanks to a horse named Sunday Break that the public is totally uninterested in.
I watched Sunday Break in the paddock on Saturday, and I was a little shocked at first. The horse is small compared to most thoroughbreds. Light-framed, as they say. Then again, that's an asset in a long race on dirt, especially when you're churning up the deep loam along the rail on that last furlong.
On the day I saw him, Sunday Break was racing in the Peter Pan Stakes. The Peter Pan is the last big stakes race where it's possible to test a horse and still have enough time to rest him for the Belmont. Perhaps that's why five Peter Pan winners since 1975 have also go on to win the Belmont --including Lemon Drop Kid.
But Sunday Break, the little bay colt, has other advantages. For one thing, he's trained by Neil Drysdale, a veteran Hall of Famer who did the same thing in 1992 --slipped a horse named A.P. Indy into the Peter Pan after he missed the Derby, then went on to win the Belmont.
But Sunday Break is also a classically late-developing 3-year-old. He was born in April 1999 on the Hokkaido Island farm of Koji Maeda in Japan. (Maeda is a big-time Asian horseman, with 150 horses in training.) But he hardly raced at all as a 2-year-old -- once at Hollywood Park last November, again at Santa Anita the day after Christmas. Then he won three races in a row -- twice at Santa Anita in January and February, again at Aqueduct in March. He only finished third in the talent-heavy Wood Memorial, but it was an extremely close pack and he was still not fully developed. Apparently he's had a teenage growth spurt since then.
At any rate, Drysdale was obviously competing against the best horses he could find, getting him ready for the Derby, but he didn't have enough time. There were so many horses entered in the Derby that the field had to be limited to 20, and Sunday Break didn't qualify because his earnings were too small.
So Drysdale then intentionally bypassed the Preakness to give Sunday Break a six-week rest. Diabolical? Maybe. War Emblem is obviously a front-running horse -- he fights the bit and goes to the front no matter what the jockey does --and that's just the kind of horse that Sunday Break can beat.
He proved it in the Peter Pan on Saturday. He did exactly what jockey Gary Stevens asked him to do, which was to relax into the middle of the pack and run comfortably without straining. And then at the final turn Stevens asked him to go, and he did. He circled the other horses three-wide and outran a class horse named Puzzlement to win easily. "I showed him the whip one time," Stevens said after the race, "but I never hit him."
In other words, a classic stalking horse. A strong top-of-his-form stalker in the big race that rewards stalkers and punishes horses that try to lead wire-to-wire. There's no question that War Emblem will try to take the early lead, even if his rider is standing in the stirrups, and so the smart money at Belmont says he won't have the stamina to go that last furlong and a half.
There are two wild-card elements as well. Post position is proving to be extremely important this season, as the Belmont track is favoring inside horses. (On the other hand, Sunday Break seems comfortable going wide.)
The other thing is the crowd. War Emblem is so popular that, if it's a sunny day, Belmont could break its all-time attendance record of 85,818, set at the 1999 Belmont Stakes. Sunday Break has never heard that kind of noise. War Emblem has.
I'm gonna do whatever the old men in the Belmont Room do, but they're not likely to put down $1,000 on War Emblem for the chance of winning 100. I'm betting that they load up on the "don't pass" line called Sunday Break. Be nice to them if they win. They don't get these chances often.
(Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)