By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
With a little more than a week remaining until Justify
seeks Triple Crown glory in the Belmont
Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, I thought now might be a good time to
examine the potential pace of the race and how it might affect the outcome.
Three years ago, when American Pharoah was bidding for
the Triple Crown, I wrote an article detailing how the three-quarter mile and
one-mile fractions could be instrumental in determining whether American
Pharoah's quest would end in victory. As it turned out, the essence of my
analysis was correct—American Pharoah was able to secure a clear lead while
setting more modest fractions than those faced by the likes of previous Triple
Crown hopefuls Smarty Jones and California Chrome, and the result was an easy
Now we're left to ponder whether the unbeaten Justify can secure the same ideal setup
as American Pharoah, or whether he'll face increased pace pressure that could
result in an upset. Will Justify get away with six furlongs in ~1:13 2/5 and a
mile in ~1:38, leaving him with enough in the tank to sweep the Triple Crown?
Or will the pace intensify during the second half-mile, putting him at risk of
A glance through the prospective list of starters for the
Belmont Stakes reveals that a slow pace is certainly a possibility. As of May
30th, the Daily Racing Form
lists twelve horses as possible for the Belmont Stakes, and several have shown
no particular inclination or ability to race on or near the pace. That group
includes three European contender—Bandua,
Gronkowski, and Seahenge—as well as last year's Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) winner Free Drop Billy, the recent Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) winner Blended Citizen, and the Florida Derby (gr. I) runner-up Hofburg. The latter three colts have
never been closer than third place at the first call in any of their races. Vino Rosso has shown a little more
speed in his career, but overall has been more of a mid-pack closer, a running
style he employed with success in the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. II).
Two other potential starters have shown the ability to
race close to the lead on occasion. Bravazo
won the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) after pushing the pace in second place for
much of the race, while Tenfold
broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion at Oaklawn Park. But overall, Bravazo
and Tenfold have seemed more effective when rallying from a few lengths off the
pace, as they did when finishing second and third behind Justify in the
Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
So who does that leave to challenge Justify for early
supremacy in the Belmont Stakes? The most likely candidate might actually be
Justify's stablemate Restoring Hope.
The son of Giant's Causeway vied for the early lead when breaking his maiden at
Santa Anita in February and ran an even race when third at every call in the
Wood Memorial (gr. II). He failed to flash his typical speed when finishing
twelfth in the Pat Day Mile Stakes (gr. III) last time out, but that race was
contested over a sloppy, sealed track and Restoring Hope never threatened, so
he might not have cared for the going.
Trainer Bob Baffert has stated that Restoring Hope could
serve as a pacemaker for Justify in the Belmont Stakes, giving the Derby/Preakness
winner a target to chase while simultaneously giving Restoring Hope a
front-running trip that should suit his grinding style and give him his best
chance at victory. Having Restoring Hope carve out a modest pace on the front
end could be a perfect scenario for Justify, who seems to be at his best when
allowed to track another runner through the early stages of his races.
The wildcard in this scenario, and the horse that could have
the biggest impact on the pace, is Noble
Indy. The speedy son of Take Charge Indy was no match for Justify when
finishing seventeenth in the Kentucky Derby, but the combination of a blazing
pace, a sloppy track, and a wide trip surely hurt his chances. Previously,
Noble Indy had tracked a fast pace while winning the Louisiana Derby (gr. II),
and he also broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion sprinting seven furlongs
at Gulfstream Park.
Noble Indy has the speed to set or push the pace in the
Belmont Stakes, and if he applies pressure to Justify during the second
half-mile, he could potentially make things tricky for the Triple Crown
aspirant. But the question is this—will Noble Indy use his speed? Noble Indy is
owned in partnership by WinStar Farm (the majority owner of Justify) and Repole
Stable (who owns a share of Vino Rosso), which could make things tricky from a
tactical perspective. If Noble Indy goes out fast, it could benefit Vino Rosso
while putting Justify at a disadvantage; if Noble Indy takes back, he won't be
doing Vino Rosso any favors while conceding the advantage to Justify.
The way I see it, this actually leaves the strategy for
Noble Indy relatively clear. Three of his four best efforts, including his
Louisiana Derby victory, came when Noble Indy tracked the pace, so unless he
draws an inside post and is forced to commit to the lead, I expect to see Noble
Indy settle close to the pace in the Belmont Stakes without getting aggressive
in battling for the lead. This strategy would be in line with Noble Indy's
established running style and could give him every chance to win or hit the
board without particularly compromising either of his stablemates.
In essence, my feeling is that the pace of the 2018
Belmont Stakes could be more contested than in 2015, when American Pharoah
assumed a clear lead and never looked back. But while this might be the case, I
don't believe that the pace fractions themselves will be especially fast
(perhaps six furlongs in ~1:13 and a mile in ~1:37 4/5) giving Justify every
chance to win the Triple Crown if he is good enough.
How do you think the pace of the Belmont Stakes will
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.