BELMONT, N.Y. -- Will Alysheba win the Belmont Stakes and complete his sweep of the Triple Crown?
Is he worth a bet?
Although, by historical standards, he certainly cannot be considered a great racehorse, Alysheba has dominated his contemporaries as convincingly as some of the great ones have.
In recent years, the majority of Triple Crown events have been won by the horse who gets the easiest trip, who benefits from racing luck, but Alysheba has beaten his rivals because he is unequivocally superior. And he figures to be even more effective at the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance.
If Alysheba's achievements were not clouded by his use of the drug Lasix, he would be a cinch to win on Saturday. But no handicapper can ignore the possibility that the medication could have contributed to the success of a horse with a history of respiratory problems. When he runs without Lasix at Belmont, where the drug is prohibited, he may or may not run well, but he is certainly no bargain at 7 to 5.
Yet as ambiguous as the Belmont is, I have formulated a betting strategy that takes into account the ambiguities and offers opportunities for profit whether or not Alysheba runs well.
The Belmont offers interesting financial possibilities because of the growing local infatuation for horses in the field who can't go 1 1/2 miles: Woody Stephens' colt Gone West and LeRoy Jolley's entry of Gulch and Leo Castelli.
Gone West never has won beyond a mile and never has given any indications that he wants to go much farther. He ought to be 10 to 1, but he may be as short as 3 to 1 because Stephens is shooting for a historic sixth straight Belmont victory.
Gulch was soundly beaten in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but he gained a lot of new fans when he won the Metropolitan Handicap here, beating a top-class field of older horses that included the star Broad Brush. He won not because he has improved so much, but because he was finally going the proper distance. Gulch's record in one-turn races is seven for nine; around two turns, he is one for five. He can't run 1 1/2 miles, yet he and his stablemate are expected to be a solid second choice in the wagering.
Both Gone West and Gulch have natural speed, but their trainers have been teaching them to come from off the pace so that they will be able to go a longer distance. There is, in fact, no true speed horse or habitual front runner in the field and that -- next to the Lasix issue -- may be the key factor in the Belmont.
Contrary to popular belief, the Belmont is not usually won by horses who make big rallies, but rather by horses with speed, or at least those with an even-paced running style.
In a Belmont in which the early fractions are likely to be slow, this style is even more likely to succeed. The winner on Saturday probably will be loping along near the lead in a slow-pace race.
Two horses in the field have the right style and the necessary stamina: Alysheba and Bet Twice. Bet Twice has run all his best races sitting just off the lead; Alysheba is now regarded as a stretch-runner because of his big finish in the Derby, but he can sit close to the pace when he has to.
Longshot Avies Copy has the right style, too. He's not as good as Alysheba and Bet Twice, but he did win the 1 1/4-mile Jersey Derby on Memorial Day, proving he has some stamina.
The contender with the wrong style is Cryptoclearance. He is a talented colt -- probably better than Bet Twice, in fact -- but horses who like to make one strong move on the turn don't usually get the money in the Belmont.
If Alysheba doesn't win the Belmont, Bet Twice will -- at a good price. Most linemakers here put his odds at about 5 to 1. Moreover, if Alysheba doesn't win because he misses his Lasix, he may well finish completely out of the money, setting up large payoffs in the exacta and triple.
I am going to bet the Belmont according to two possible scenarios.
On the assumption that the favorite can run without Lasix, I will play a solid Alysheba-Bet Twice exacta, as well as a triple using Avies Copy in the third slot.
On the assumption that Alysheba will not be the same without Lasix, I will play Bet Twice in exactas and triples on top of Alysheba, Avies Copy and (to a lesser extent) Cryptoclearance. The only trouble with this strategy is that it drains the suspense from an otherwise dramatic Belmont, because whatever the result I expect to win.