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Favored Sierra Leone looks vulnerable in shortened Belmont Stakes

You can tear up or at least revise your playbook for betting on Saturday’s $2 million Belmont Stakes.

The third leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown is a different animal this year.

There will be no Triple Crown trophy on the line for the 10 horses entered in the Belmont Stakes after different horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. But there is still plenty of intrigue in the 156th running of the race known as the “Test of the Champion.”

It will be held at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York for the first time. Its usual home at Belmont Park on Long Island is in the midst of a $455 million renovation that is expected to continue into 2026.

That forced racing officials to temporarily cut the distance of the grueling race from its usual lung-busting 1½ miles to 1¼ miles so that horses wouldn’t have to start on the far turn at Saratoga.

Those missing 440 yards may not seem like a big deal, but they give horses that might have been gasping in the stretch at Belmont Park an opportunity to hang around.

The shape of the race will also be different. The 1¼-mile races at Saratoga are often faster in the early stages than in those rare 1½-mile marathons at Belmont Park.

That suggests 9-5 morning-line favorite Sierra Leone, a deep closer trained by Chad Brown who skipped the Preakness, and his new jockey Flavien Prat will either need to produce more early speed than the colt has shown of late or hope for a pace battle that softens up the horses on or near the lead in the early going.

Asking a horse to change its running style in a big race is generally not productive. I don’t expect Prat to push the favorite too hard early in an attempt to gain a forward position.

The pace scenario in the Belmont is a bit murkier. Dornoch, winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in March, is the only confirmed front-runner in the field, though Seize the Grey showed sharp early foot in winning the Preakness over a sealed muddy track at Pimlico three weeks ago. Seize the Grey should be prominent early given the need to avoid getting buried fromhis inside post.

Four other horses in the field — Resilience, The Wine Steward, Antiquarian and Mindframe — also possess enough gas to be part of the early mix.

That means the early pace will hinge on the riders’ patience. If the pace pressers resist the urge to move too early, it should be moderate. Any faster and Sierra Leone will likely mow down his rivals in the stretch. Any slower and he and fellow deep closer Honor Marie are going to be up against it.

Given the pace uncertainty and the general speed-favoring trend for 1¼-mile races at Saratoga, Sierra Leone’s 9-5 odds are too short for me to back him to win.

Mindframe, the 7-2 second choice on the morning line, also has potential cracks in his armor despite his gaudy speed figures and 2-for-2 record. Not only is he inexperienced compared to his rivals, but he seems likely to get a wide trip from the 10 hole.

More appealing for a win wager is Mystik Dan, who beat Sierra Leone by a nose in the Kentucky Derby and is strangely the third choice on the morning line at 5-1. He figures to be able to secure his favored inside running position once more under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. The midpack runner also won’t have as much to do in the stretch as Sierra Leone.

At 8-1, Seize the Grey is an intriguing possibility as well as he attempts to give Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas the fifth Belmont Stakes victory of his storied career. But I’m inclined to discount Seize the Grey’s chances here given the speed-favoring nature of the muddy Pimlico racing surface he ran over on Preakness day and the likelihood that he will have company on the front end.

My betting strategy for exotic wagers will revolve around Mystik Dan and Sierra Leone, with a few long shots mixed in to add some price if my analysis bears fruit: Resilience (10-1), The Wine Steward (15-1), Antiquarian (12-1) and Honor Marie (12-1).

Mike Brunker is a retired Review-Journal editor who now spends a good amount of time lounging poolside with the Daily Racing Form.

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