NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Eleven times over the past 34 years, a three-year-old thoroughbred arrived at Belmont Park with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and 11 times, he failed. A sport in sore need of a superstar hopes that I'll Have Another breaks that jinx on Saturday. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness is listed as the odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes. But racing writer Andy Beyer argues that the crowded schedule, the unusual distance and history all suggest you should put your money on another colt.
So horse players, how do you pick a winner - speed, pace, breathing? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Washington Post horse racing columnist Andy Beyer joins us now by smartphone from his home in Washington. Nice to have you back.
ANDY BEYER: Hi, Neal. I hope it proves to be a smart phone.
CONAN: So far, so good, Andy. Why - you said you're highly skeptical that I'll Have Another is going to be able to repeat his success in the first two races.
BEYER: No. I didn't say that. I would say that that if you look at the circumstances of this race, if it were just a normal race, you'd say, wow, this horse is so superior to everybody else. You know, he looks like, you know, a can't-miss proposition. You know, with the history of the Belmont that we know and with all of the failures of good horses and with all of the unpredictable, you know, results in recent years, I don't think anybody wants to go out on a limb and say, you know, a horse can't lose. I would say he's supposed to win. I think he'll win. I hope he'll win. But I can't go farther than that.
CONAN: What makes the Belmont so unusual, just a quarter mile longer than the Derby?
BEYER: Well, the distance is a whole different game. You know, and in part, it's a different game because horses in America today aren't bred to go a mile and a half. You know, I was looking back at the 1980s, the horses who won the Kentucky Derby, every horse had like a solid mile-and-a-half runner, and the first two generations, it was pedigree. And so when horses, you know, like from the '70s and that - from that era, you know, went into the Belmont, they were pretty much, you know, mostly equipped, you know, to, you know, to run the distance.
Now, nobody is bred for a mile and a half. And so when horses get into this race even if they look good finishing it at a mile and a quarter in the Derby, as I'll Have Another did, you know, it's a real unknown factor. I mean, it's kind of a crapshoot to know who is, you know, who's got the genes to go the distance.
CONAN: The other aspect of it is that the horse's jockey is unfamiliar with Belmont Park, which is, I think, the only track in the country that's a mile and a half.
BEYER: You know, I don't know what to make of the jockey factor here. I do know that when you look at the history of failures in the Belmont Stakes, a lot of them have been caused by jockey error, and you've had, you know, like great riders like Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel, just like blow the Belmont. You know, Mario Gutierrez, you know, I'll Have Another's jockey, is, you know, is relatively inexperienced at, you know, at not only the mile and a half but at major league racing as well.
I mean, maybe that works to his advantage. I mean, maybe he'll come in and say I've got to do my homework. I've got to, you know, learn about the Belmont. He was very studious before the Preakness, watching, you know, films of, you know, historic races. So, you know, maybe he'll do his homework.
CONAN: This is a quote from D. Wayne Lukas, who's got a horse in the race, the famous trainer, of course. More riders...
BEYER: ...before the Preakness, watching, you know, films of, you know, historic races. So, you know, maybe he'll do his homework.
CONAN: This is a quote from D. Wayne Lukas, whose got a horse in the race - the famous trainer, of course. "More riders have lost the race than horses," Lukas said. This is from USA Today. "It's a difficult racetrack to ride. Even if you ride it daily, there's something about it. The adrenalin gets flowing, and they make some mistakes and most of them misjudge the pace." And there are famous examples you wrote about in the column - I think earlier this week - of jockeys who just decided to move too soon.
BEYER: Right. Well, it's understandable, because in a lot of cases, you - if you watched the Kentucky Derbies over the years, you see horses make that big, bold move on the turn at Churchill Downs and go on to win in, you know, very frequently. I mean, that's kind of the winning move at the Derby. But when you take the same horse and try to make that move at the Belmont, the horse might surge to the lead. He's still got to run into the next county. And so the - that style doesn't work. And jockeys who, you know, who do make premature moves in the Belmont, you know, are usually dooming themselves and their horse.
CONAN: As you look at the race - now, you are famously a speed handicapper. There's the Beyer Speed factor that's listed in the daily racing form. That's your name there.
BEYER: Right. That is.
CONAN: And you wrote before the Preakness that your speed analysis, the pace of the race, it looked like there was a ton of early speed, that they would burn themselves up in suicidal fractions into set up for a closer. And you said, despite that, your conviction was you look at the speed figures, and there was no way Bodemeister could lose.
BEYER: I, you know, that's not exactly the scenario, but I loved - you know, I love Bodemeister in the Preakness. And if you said that I'll Have Another, you know, was a candidate to win the, you know, the Triple Crown, I would have laughed derisively. I was totally wrong about this horse because he just moved to a whole different level in the Preakness.
I mean, not only from the speed figures standpoint where his number - his Beyer Speed figure went from 101 to 109. But while he had kind of a perfect tactical set up in the Derby, he overcame extremely difficult tactical circumstances in the Preakness. So this horse, you know, has just kind of stepped up to a new level. And if he stays at this level, he ought to crush this field. Now, that, you know, that's always a big if in the Belmont.
CONAN: The last time there was a Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, back in 1978, it was one of the most famous duels in horse racing history. Affirmed and Alydar, Alydar and Affirmed three times, one, two in the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Bodemeister was second in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Preakness after a pretty good race. He's sitting this one out.
BEYER: Well, it was, I think, clear to his trainer, Bob Baffert, that he wasn't a mile-and-a-half horse. If I'll Have Another ran him down at two shorter distances, you know, this was not going to be Bodemeister's best game. But you've, you know, you've got a couple of horses in this field - you know, Union Rags, in particular, Dullahan - who ran in the Derby, have been given a breather. They passed the Preakness to point for the Belmont. So, I mean, they're, you know, they're potentially formidable horses, unless I'll Have Another, you know, fires his best shot again.
CONAN: But history, as you also wrote, suggests we should just bet $2 on all of the 30-1 shots.
BEYER: Well, the recent history of the Belmont has been like - unlike anything I think we've ever seen in a major race. The number of upsets - and, I mean, not merely upsets, but totally incomprehensible results - has been staggering. And, you know, I think it - I think that is due to the, you know, imponderable nature of the mile-and-a-half factor that, you know, that horses do well or do poorly in ways that we couldn't anticipate going into the race. But, you know, I still think in this field, the contention is pretty narrow. I don't see one of the off-the-wall horses winning in here, but I've said that before, too.
CONAN: Andy Beyer is with us, horse racing columnist for The Washington Post and the author of, among other books, "Picking Winners." And we're asking you: How do you pick winners at the track? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cal's on the line. Cal's calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.
CAL: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a follower of Andy Beyer, going back to the early '70s when I used to go to tracks in Maryland. He's a great handicapper. He and Joe Drape of The New York Times are the two best in the business as far as giving advice. But, in this case, because of the intricacies you've already talked about of Belmont, I have to go with Dullahan because he does have rest after the Derby. And the mile-and-a-half is just a killer. Otherwise, somebody would have nailed it since 1978. And finally, I had the great pleasure of seeing the best horse in history, in my opinion, run in the Preakness, and that was Secretariat. And thank you so much for taking the call.
CONAN: All right, Cal. Thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: So he likes Dullahan.
BEYER: Well, Dullahan is the type of horse who often looks better on paper than he actually does running in the Belmont. The horses who make that big, late charge in the Kentucky Derby always get racing fans to say, well, this is going to be my Belmont horse. But it's a - they don't necessarily sustain that big, late run in the Belmont, and they've historically burned a lot of money.
CONAN: Not yours, that much. Andy Beyer is the horse racing columnist for The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go next to Marilyn, and Marilyn's with us from Manning in South Carolina.
MARILYN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
MARILYN: I take my horses by - well, I used to be an exercise girl back in my youth. And I study their genetics, and then I usually go by picking the colors of the jockey.
CONAN: The silks?
MARILYN: Yep. And I usually go with green, because as far as I'm concerned, with the amount of doping that's going on in the racing anymore, and you just got to look at the one that's the favorite right now who's got - I mean, his jockey's in trouble. His trainer's in trouble. His daughter's in trouble, et cetera, et cetera. Then I'm just going to go with, you know, whoever's wearing the shade of green that I like for the Belmont.
CONAN: Well, Marilyn, thanks very much for the call. She raises a good...
BEYER: May I interject something here, Neal?
BEYER: You know, the newspapers have been filled with stories about this cheating trainer, you know, who has now won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. There's nobody in this business who is more critical of drug abuse than I am, but I will say this: I have examined Doug O'Neill's record thoroughly. This guy is not a cheater. And the wrap that he has been getting, you know, coming into the Belmont, that, you know, we have to have a special security barn to keep O'Neill from doping his horse, is just crazy.
CONAN: He's accused of milkshaking and, indeed, will have to begin serving a 45-day suspension shortly after the Belmont Stakes.
BEYER: The test that his horse failed is - or the test that got him that suspension measures the amount of carbon dioxide in the horse's body. It occurs there naturally. So the - and what the test does is sort of measure whether you're over what appears to be, like, a normal amount. And if, like, the normal is 35, then this horse got a 37.
This was not a case of their finding, you know, some, you know, illicit substance like cobra venom in the, you know, in the horse's blood. It, as I say, was a case, you know, he measured - you know, his carbon dioxide measured 37 instead of 35.
And I looked at the record of this horse. If anybody thinks that there was any illicit intent, you know, in the horse that he got the suspension for, then they're crazy. It was like, you know, a hopeless horse who had, you know, who hadn't run a good race for a long time - I mean, that ran a, you know, or finished eight in the race in question.
So this was - it was, you know, it was easy for people who want to, you know, put racing in the worst possible light to seize on this and say, you know, this guy is a drugger or a cheater. It's not the case here.
CONAN: Let's go next to Emmy, Emmy with us from St. Louis.
EMMY: Yes. I just had a question. I was reading in the paper about the nasal strips, and that I'll Have Another used them in the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby. I was wondering if that's going to make a difference with the longer length of the Belmont, and then him not having - to be able to run with those?
CONAN: This is Breathe Right strip, the kind they advertised for colds to open your nose. But, Andy Beyer, go ahead.
BEYER: Yeah. I think this is a non-issue. I mean, the nasal strips are legal everywhere else, you know, except in New York. And I just - I guess because it's the Belmont and because we're having all this talk about, you know, illicit edges being taken by trainers. This has made headlines, too. But I think this is a non-issue.
EMMY: You don't think it'll have an effect on his performance or anything in the longer term(ph)?
BEYER: I don't think so. No. I think the horse could breathe on his own pretty well.
EMMY: OK. Just curious. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks, Emmy.
CONAN: This is from Cindy in Mexico, New York: When visiting the race track, I employ this scientific approach to choosing horses: put the program on the floor, drop a fork on it. Works great. And, by the way, I used this technique with a map of the Eastern United States to choose a place to live in the late 1970s, and ended up in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia.
BEYER: Well, not a bad choice.
CONAN: There are a lot of worse places to be. In the meantime, Andy, are you going to go up for the race, or does...
BEYER: I will be writing from - doing my writing from Washington. But, I'll tell you, I'm fired up for this race. I, you know, - I think this - the sport really needs a boost coming from this horse. I, you know, contrary to what you may read in the papers, I think the whole cast of human characters associated, aided(ph) Reddam, is a great group. You know, I want to see him win.
CONAN: Andy Beyer, as always, thanks very much.
BEYER: Good talking to you, Neal. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Washington Post horse racing columnist, Andy Beyer, joined us by smartphone from his home in Washington, D.C. From nearby Washington, he'll be covering the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon.
Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.