By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Ten horses. Twelve furlongs. History waiting at the
$1,500,000 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) promises to be one of the most
anticipated races of the year thanks to the undefeated Justify, who will face off against nine rivals while seeking a rare
sweep of the Triple Crown.
There's a lot to cover, so let's dive right in and take a
look at each horse in the field....
What a run it's been for Justify! In the span of 3 ½
months, he's gone from an unraced maiden to an unbeaten three-time Grade 1
winner with victories in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr.
I) under his belt. Along the way, he conquered the fabled "Apollo Curse" by
winning the Derby without any racing experience as a two-year-old, and now he's
poised to join stablemate American Pharoah as only the second horse since 1978
to sweep the Triple Crown.
No matter how you slice it, Justify is the horse to beat
in the Belmont Stakes, even if he does have a few obstacles to overcome. With
his eye-catching speed figures and proven ability to set (and survive) a fast
pace, Justify holds a significant tactical advantage in the Belmont Stakes, and
now that he's drawn the rail it would come as no surprise to see jockey Mike
Smith send Justify straight to the lead and play "catch me if you can." That's
a strategy that has worked for eight of the twelve previous Triple Crown
winners, including each of the last five, and with relatively little early
speed in this Belmont Stakes field, Justify should be poised to work out a
perfect trip on the front end.
The main concerns are the possibility of a slow start and
the possibility that Justify is starting to regress after his busy racing
schedule. Although Justify has generally been pretty quick out of the starting
gate, he is a big horse that needs to settle into a rhythm to run his best
race, and even a moment's hesitation breaking from post one could be enough to
shuffle him back through the pack if any of the other riders get aggressive,
and racing behind horses in a pocket would be far from ideal for Justify.
As for the possibility of regression, there has been some
concern among handicappers over the fact that Justify was all-out to win the
Preakness Stakes by just a half-length while earning career-low Beyer and BRIS
speed figures of 97 and 98, respectively. However, I think the close margin at
the finish was more the result of Justify engaging the champion and Kentucky Derby
runner-up Good Magic in an intense battle for the lead from start to finish,
which left both colts a bit leg-weary in the homestretch.
It's a testament to Justify's ability that he won despite
those circumstances, and while there's no guarantee that he has the stamina to
stretch his speed over 1 ½ miles, the extended distance should allow him to
settle into a much more relaxed pace than in the Preakness or even the Derby,
possibly setting him up for a return to the career-best speed figures he earned
when securing an easy lead in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
Furthermore, all indications suggest that Justify has
bounced out of the Preakness in good form. Ten days after the race, he threw
down a bullet :46 4/5 half-mile breeze at Churchill Downs, which he followed up
with five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 (out seven furlongs in 1:27 1/5) on June 4th.
To me, regression from his busy racing schedule seems unlikely—if Justify loses
the Belmont Stakes, I think it will be the result of a poor trip or pace setup,
two factors that his tactical speed and versatility should give him every
chance to avoid.
Free Drop Billy
Free Drop Billy has accomplished a lot of his career,
most notably defeating Bravazo by four lengths in the Breeders' Futurity (gr.
I) last fall, but the son of Union Rags has gone 0-for-5 since then and might
ultimately prove to be at his best as a miler. He's shown hints of possible
stamina limitations this year and couldn't keep up with the fast pace despite a
ground-saving trip in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), retreating to finish a
distant sixteenth after attempting to stay within a half-dozen lengths or so of
the early lead. He's trained up a storm since then at Churchill Downs and seems
to be maintaining his form overall, so perhaps he just didn't care for the
sloppy track in the Derby, but even drawing a line through his Derby effort, I
think running 1 ½ miles against this level of competition could be a tough task
for Free Drop Billy.
When trainer D. Wayne Lukas gets a talented horse into a
rhythm, it can be wise to pay attention. Just think back to Oxbow, who entered
the 2013 Belmont Stakes off of an upset win in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
That effort followed a solid sixth-place finish with a tough trip in the
Kentucky Derby, and while Oxbow was not a popular choice in the Belmont
Stakes—he was sent off as the fourth choice at 10-1—he outran expectations
again to finish second in a strong effort.
In many ways, Bravazo is very similar to Oxbow. In
addition to being bred along the same lines (both are by Awesome Again out of a
Cee's Tizzy mare), Bravazo has emulated Oxbow by finishing sixth in the Derby
with a poor trip and improving dramatically in the Preakness Stakes, in which
he was beaten just a half-length by Justify.
As good as that effort looks at first glance, I actually
think it's been underrated a bit. While the most visually impressive aspect of
the performance was Bravazo's dramatic late surge in the final furlong (during
which he closed 4 ½ lengths on Justify), I was just as impressed by his
performance in the early stages of the race, as he showed plenty of speed to
track the pace in third place before dropping back a bit around the far turn.
While it's difficult to say for certain since conditions were foggy, it
appeared to me that Bravazo shifted to the inside on the far turn and may have
been reacting to having mud kicked back in his face by the leaders. In any
case, when he was steered back to the outside in the homestretch, he finished
strongly to just miss catching Justify.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I expect
Bravazo to maintain his strong form in the Belmont Stakes, where the early
speed that he showed in the Preakness should help him establish a good position
racing reasonably close to the pace. From there, I'll trust that his pedigree
and his fitness from racing and training (check out that 1:42 3/5 mile breeze
on May 31st!) will put him right in the mix down the homestretch.
Tapit has sired three of the last four Belmont Stakes
winners, and his son Hofburg will likely be the second choice in the wagering
when the field heads to post on Saturday. But will that make him an underlay in
comparison to his actual chances of winning?
Trained by Bill Mott, Hofburg has accomplished a lot in
four career starts, joining the Kentucky Derby trail with a runner-up effort in
the Florida Derby (gr. I) before finishing seventh with a rough trip in the
Derby itself. The trouble Hofburg endured was legitimate, as he got shuffled
back at a key point on the far turn while repeatedly changing lanes and aiming
for holes that just kept closing. When he finally got clear in the homestretch,
he passed a half-dozen tiring rivals to finish seventh, beaten just 8 ¾ lengths
while appearing to have something left in the tank.
On the other hand, by the time Hofburg got going in the
Derby, the leaders were slowing down sharply (the final quarter-mile was timed
in just :26.85 seconds), and aside from his traffic issues on the far turn,
Hofburg actually got a pretty good setup in the Derby, saving ground while
rating far behind the fast early pace. His Florida Derby effort was also
enhanced by a fast pace; RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability
Ratio of 97, indicating a race that strongly favored late runners. Despite
rating farther off the pace than the eventual winner, Audible, Hofburg was
unable to out-kick Audible through the homestretch and actually lost ground to
that rival in the final furlong.
In many ways, Hofburg reminds me of recent Belmont Stakes
runners such as Materiality, Ice Box, and Will Take Charge, who finished
strongly after enduring poor trips in the Derby, only to falter in the Belmont
Stakes. It's fair to wonder if their strong finishes in the Derby were actually
the result of rating far behind the pace and passing tiring rivals when the
race was essentially over.
I do respect what Hofburg has accomplished in a short
period of time, but I suspect he'll be over bet off his troubled trip in the
Derby, and as a deep closer, he may be left with too much to do in the Belmont
Stakes, a race that tends to favor horses with tactical speed.
On paper, it's hard to make a case for Restoring Hope
having much of an impact in the Belmont Stakes. After all, the son of Giant's
Causeway finished a distant twelfth in the Pat Day Mile Stakes (gr. III) last
time out and has just one win from five starts dating back to last December.
But dig a little deeper, and Restoring Hope becomes a bit
more interesting. He's not the fastest horse in terms of pace or speed figures,
but he's a grinder in the truest sense of the word and put his strengths to use
when running a very even race in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) two starts back—he
was third at every call, staying closer to a fast early pace than most and
finishing better than most while coming home 5 ¼ lengths behind the
late-running Vino Rosso.
Trainer Bob Baffert has suggested that Restoring Hope
will be sent to the lead in the Belmont Stakes to give Justify a target to
chase, and while that seems less likely now that Justify has drawn the rail and
may be committed to set the pace, there's still a chance that Restoring Hope
finds himself racing close to a modest early pace, which could be a perfect
setup for him. Irish War Cry, Destin, American Pharoah, Commissioner, Paynter,
Ruler On Ice, Dunkirk, Da' Tara... over the last ten years, they've all finished
first or second in the Belmont Stakes while never racing farther back than
second at any call, with the common thread being that they took advantage of
modest fractions and just kept going, with many of them starting at huge odds.
Restoring Hope might not be the most likely winner of the
Belmont Stakes, but he's kept good company throughout his career and might not
be out of the question to finish on the board at a big price.
Popular colt won two races on the European Road to the
Kentucky Derby, but missed the Derby itself due to a slight illness and was
subsequently transferred to the barn of Chad Brown. A son of the
Australian-bred Lonhro, Gronwkowski brings a four-race wins streak into the
Belmont Stakes and has a grinding style that could be well-suited to this
distance, but then again, he's never run beyond a mile and will be making his
debut on dirt. Those are significant question marks since Gronkowski's pedigree
is geared more toward success on turf/synthetic tracks and at distances up to a
mile. The Belmont Stakes could prove to be a stiff test for Gronkowski, and I
have the feeling that he'll be over bet in relation to his actual chances of
winning, making him a horse that I'll play against.
This lightly-raced son of Curlin is bred to thrive at 1 ½
miles and is bound to receive some play off his excellent third-place finish in
the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), where he was beaten less than a length by
Justify. But for a couple of reasons, I hesitate to fully embrace Tenfold's
chances in the Belmont. First off, trainer Steve Asmussen had Tenfold (and his
other runners on Preakness weekend) equipped with special shoes to give them an
advantage over the sloppy, sealed track, and judging from the results—in
addition to Tenfold's fine run, Asmussen won three main-track stakes races on
Friday and Saturday—the shoes appeared to do their job.
Furthermore, Tenfold received a great setup overall in
the Preakness Stakes, rating off the pace early on before rallying into
contention in the homestretch, after Justify was growing leg-weary from dueling
with Good Magic. Even still, Tenfold failed to catch Justify and was out-kicked
to the wire by Bravazo, who had stayed closer to the pace early on before
briefly dropping back around the far turn.
If Belmont comes up wet on Saturday, Tenfold could be a
major threat once again, and the fact that he's lightly-raced overall and still
improving (no surprise given his pedigree) is appealing. He's definitely a
candidate for inclusion in the exotics, but on a dry track especially, there
are others I prefer a bit more.
If anyone can upset Justify in the Belmont Stakes, I
think it's this beautifully-bred colt trained by Todd Pletcher. As a son of
Curlin out of the Street Cry mare Mythical Bride—herself a half-sister to 2014
Belmont Stakes runner-up Commissioner—Vino Rosso's pedigree is packed with
late-maturing stamina and he's long appeared to be the type of colt that could
excel going 1 ½ miles in the Belmont Stakes.
After kicking off his career with promising maiden and
allowance wins at Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs, Vino Rosso seemed something
like a work in progress during the winter, showing flashes of talent while
finishing third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) and fourth in the Tampa
Bay Derby (gr. II). In both races, Vino Rosso showed decent early speed before
dropping back around the far turn and re-rallying in the homestretch; the
addition of blinkers in the Tampa Bay Derby seemed to result in a worse
performance, though that may have been more the result of Vino Rosso being
compromised by a slow pace than an adverse reaction to blinkers.
In any case, Vino Rosso improved significantly (while
still wearing blinkers) in the Wood Memorial, rating behind a fast pace and
accelerating strongly around the final turn to roll past the leaders and win
going away by three lengths. He did benefit from a good pace setup, and he did
give runner-up Enticed a couple of hard bumps at the top of the stretch, but
overall this was a big step forward off his efforts at Tampa Bay Downs.
That performance made Vino Rosso a 14-1 shot in the
Kentucky Derby, and although he never seriously threatened over the sloppy
track, he nevertheless put in a mild late rally to finish ninth, beaten 10 ½ lengths.
It wasn't quite as flashy as the troubled trips endured by Bravazo (very wide
while making a big mid-race move) and Hofburg (stopped repeatedly around the
far turn as mentioned above), but it was subtly bad in that Vino Rosso raced
wide throughout on a day when the rail was the best part of the track. Even just
in terms of raw ground loss, Vino Rosso ran more than four lengths farther than
Hofburg according to Trakus.
I don't think we've seen the best that Vino Rosso has to
offer, but the Belmont Stakes could provide that opportunity. He's trained well
since the Derby, most recently going five furlongs on June 1st in
1:01.55 with a three-furlong gallop-out that carried him through a mile in
about 1:42 flat per clocker Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form. I love to see a good stiff gallop-out like that
from Pletcher's Belmont contenders, and certainly no trainer has enjoyed more
recent success in the third jewel of the Triple Crown than Pletcher. Since
2006, he's won the race three times and has sent out eight other runners to
finish in the trifecta; in other words, over the last dozen years, Pletcher has
trained 30% of the top-three finishers from the Belmont Stakes, an
extraordinary record of success.
Call it a gut feeling, but I think Saturday is the day
that we see Vino Rosso step forward with a career-best effort. Whether that
will be enough to upset Justify is another question entirely, but at his 8-1
morning line price, I think he offers the best value in the race and is a
must-use in all exotic bets.
Although Noble Indy was never a threat when finishing
seventeenth in the Kentucky Derby, I think the combination of chasing a very
fast pace while racing wide over an unfamiliar sloppy track was simply too much
to overcome, so I'll draw a line through that effort and judge him off his
previous form. That includes a gutsy win in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), in
which he pushed a fast pace and lost the lead before battling back to defeat a
quality field that included Lone Sailor (fifth in the Preakness) and My Boy
Jack (fifth in the Kentucky Derby).
My main concern with Noble Indy is that he could have
difficulty working out an ideal trip in the Belmont. He's been most successful
when pressing the pace, but trying to press Justify could be easier said than
done (as Good Magic discovered in the Preakness), and if the Derby/Preakness
winner fires his best shot, Noble Indy could have a tough time matching
Justify's pace as the race goes on, leaving Noble Indy vulnerable to horses
coming from a bit farther off the pace. Perhaps with this in mind, Noble Indy
will race without blinkers in the Belmont Stakes, which could potentially help
him relax farther off the pace like he did when third with a slightly troubled
run in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II). But even this trip could be problematic,
as I'm not sure Noble Indy has the turn-of-foot to out-kick horses like Bravazo
(who won the Risen Star) or Vino Rosso.
Overall, I respect Noble Indy's talent and determination,
but I'll play against him in the Belmont Stakes.
After initially gaining a reputation as a turf/synthetic
specialist (thanks in large part to a late-running win in the Grade 3 Spiral
Stakes on Polytrack), Blended Citizen gave notice that he can be effective on
dirt as well by finishing a good fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) before
winning the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park. The latter effort was
eye-catching since Blended Citizen was able to stay within a couple lengths of
the pace before grinding to victory in the final furlong, a running style that can
be very effective in the Belmont Stakes.
On the other hand, Blended Citizen did benefit from the
fact that the final three furlongs of the Peter Pan were timed in a slow :38.34
seconds, and the final furlong in particular—:13.27—aided Blended Citizen's
late rally. The Peter Pan didn't look like the toughest race beforehand, and
Blended Citizen's winning Beyer of 90 suggests the same thing. I suspect that Blended
Citizen could find the waters a bit deeper in the Belmont Stakes, and while the
1 ½-mile distance might help his chances, I still wonder if he won't ultimately
prove best on turf/synthetic tracks or against easier competition. I'm leaning
against him in the Belmont.
In handicapping the final leg of the Triple Crown, I'm
drawn to Justify and Vino Rosso and view them as by far the
two most likely winners of this 1 ½-mile classic. For the purposes of
multi-race wagers, I would be inclined to use them both in equal strength while
betting them strongly in the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta.
If forced to choose one or the other for the purpose of
having a "top pick," I would have to say Justify while offering the disclaimer
that my "top pick" depends to some extent on what you value. I view Justify as
the most likely winner, but his post time odds won't offer much in the way of wagering
value—in fact, I think he'll be a bit over bet in comparison to his actual
chances of winning, making him an underlay in the wagering. In contrast, Vino
Rosso might not be as likely to win the race, but if he starts at his morning
line odds of 8-1, that would—in my opinion—make him the best win play in the
As for the rest, I think Bravazo has a big chance to finish in the top four again and is my
clear third choice, with Tenfold being another with a shot to finish in the
exotics, particularly if the track comes up wet. I'm against Hofburg for the most part and will
attempt to beat him in the exotics, though I can't really argue with anyone who
thinks he's sitting on a big race and I might include him on a few saver
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont
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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.