Counting Down to the Crown - By Evan Hammonds

As Justify prepares at Churchill Downs for a run at the Triple Crown in the June 9 Belmont Stakes (G1), one question turns to who will face off against the son of Scat Daddy in the Big Apple? Post positions won’t be drawn until June 5 at a specialty event at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets. Who’s in? We’re not sure…but we do know who won’t be there.

At the top of the list of those who will not try to upend the Triple Crown is Audible. On paper he would have seemed to be the biggest threat. Winner of the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) and with a stalk/press running style, the 12-furlong Belmont would seem a good fit. However, his ownership  group—the same fearsome foursome that owns Justify—along with trainer Todd Pletcher, have opted to “freshen up for other 3-year-old races this summer.”

My Boy Jack, the second choice in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), will also be bypassing the Belmont, pointing instead toward the July 7 Belmont Derby Invitational (G1T). Interestingly, Sol Kumin, who heads up the Head of Plains group, is also a sizable owner of My Boy Jack through his Monomoy Stables.

Bolt d’Oro, runner-up to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), is training well after skipping the Preakness Stakes (G1), but his connections will aim toward the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (G1) earlier on the Belmont Stakes Day program.

What happened to this crop that many said was so deep and so talented just five weeks ago? Where’d they go?

He’ll have challengers, but it is doubtful Justify will face a full gate as he seeks to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. That might portend good things to come.

Only seven sophomores took on American Pharoah in the 2015 Belmont, and racing was rewarded with its first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

In those 37 years many dual classic winners took a run at the Belmont and failed. Often they hadn’t earned the respect of many horsemen who had no trouble entering runners to take them on.

Some numbers:

Eleven rivals faced Charismatic in his 1999 bid for the Triple Crown; 10 each entered the gate to take on War Emblem (2002), Real Quiet (1998), and Pleasant Colony (1981); nine took on Sunday Silence in 1989; and eight faced Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008).

As for the other Triple Crown winners, Affirmed only had four challengers, but he did face Alydar, and the pair delivered the most memorable Triple Crown finale yet.

The year before seven dared face Seattle Slew with Preakness-third Run Dusty Run offering the stiffest challenge as the 5-1 second choice.

Secretariat had four take him on in 1973; and though Sham was in the field, he offered only token resistance.

The Triple Crown winners of the 1940s also found the number of foes in the “Test of the Champion” lighter than they had faced in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Citation tackled seven rivals but not stablemate Coaltown in 1948. Assault entered the gate with six rivals in 1946, and mighty Count Fleet had but two face him in 1943.

Whirlaway was part of a field of four in 1941 and 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral took on six, Omaha four in 1935, and Gallant Fox three in 1930.

Peering into the crystal ball, perhaps we’ll draw a better bead on June 9 once we see how many dare join the fray.

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