Keeler Johnson's Belmont Stakes 150 Selections

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Ten horses. Twelve furlongs. History waiting at the finish line.

Saturday's $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....

#1 Justify

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.

#2 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.

#3 Bravazo

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.

#4 Hofburg

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; 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.

#5 Restoring Hope

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.

#6 Gronkowski

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.

#7 Tenfold

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.

#8 Vino Rosso

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.

#9 Noble Indy

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.

#10 Blended Citizen

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 race.

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 tickets.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Belmont Stakes?


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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

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