After so many things going right for Rich Strike to win the Kentucky Derby, he’ll likely need even more luck at the Belmont Stakes with so many stacked against him.
Rich Strike won’t walk away at odds higher than 80-1 this time, but even after bypassing Preakness to compete in the final leg of the Triple Crown, he’s not expected to be the horse to beat in the back-to-back is applicable. That award belongs to 2-1 morning line favorite We the People, a rookie on the Triple Crown trail who could set the pace in the 1 1/2 mile race and thrive if it rains in New York on Saturday.
When it’s a wet track, much like We the People romped to victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park last month, trainer Mark Casse doesn’t like other people’s odds.
“We’ll all be running for second place, even the derby winner.” said Casse, who will saddle up Golden Glider at the Belmont. On May 14, Golden Glider finished a distant second behind We the People in the Peter Pan.
Rich Strike shockingly ran past 19 other horses on May 7 to become the second longest shot to win the Derby. Even that took a myriad of factors: sharp practice at Churchill Downs the week before, retreating from Ethereal Road to get into the field, blistering pace, the perfect ride and the kind of acceleration he had never seen before in a race had shown.
“Is this the best of his life? I do not know,” said retired jockey Jerry Bailey. “History will only tell us that. But I think he has to run better to win.”
That’s partly because horses in the longer Belmont, known as The, typically don’t run as fast to begin with “Trial of a Champion.” The 154th edition of the race particularly gears up for a sluggish pace, with We the People looking like the only quick horse going up against Rich Strike and six other closers on a big, sandy course not prone to late attacks favor.
“The mile and a half is just a whole different race,” said Casse, who won the Belmont three years ago with Sir Winston. “You don’t want to be too far away.”
The responsibility for this rests with the jockeys and most notably with Rich Strike’s Sonny Leon, whose navigating the traffic at the Derby will go down as one of the greatest rides in the history of the sport.
“We never expected to get the ride we got because overtaking 19 horses is asking a lot.” said coach Eric Reed this week. “Hats off to him. This is one of the best rides ever.”
But Leon has never ridden at Belmont Park before and isn’t scheduled for a climb up the main dirt track before stepping aboard Rich Strike in the $1.5 million Belmont stakes.
After seeing Calvin Borel at the top of his game in 2009 and misjudging when to make costly mistakes with Derby winner Mine That Bird and other jockeys in the race, Bailey believes it’s a tall order for Leon is to take on this task.
“He has a lot to think about” said Bailey, who is now an analyst at NBC Sports. “The Belmont is different because you can actually influence the trip that you get. They just passed him in the derby, so he just played the hand he was dealt. He can pretty much have control of his own hand if he wants because he won’t be anywhere near that far behind, so early in the race he has to decide where he wants his horse and when it’s time to move, if actually moving based on how fast – or in this case maybe how slow they were going.”
It seems to be going slowly. There is a lack of early speed 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.
This seems perfect for We the People to go wire to wire when jockey Flavien Prat can control the race.
“Flavien Prat, does he slow down as much as he can and then try to end up with so much left that they’ll never catch him?” said Bailey. “Is he trying to spread the race somewhere in the middle and get a cushion? A lot of that will depend on how Flavien chooses to race.”
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