Can Justify join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner, and become the 13th 3-year-old to accomplish that feat, before an expected sellout crowd of 90,000 in Saturday’s 150th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets?
Can he negotiate the vast 1½-mile oval that is Belmont Park's main track more swiftly than seven well-rested contenders and, at the same time stave off Bravazo and Tenfold, who were hot on his heels at the finish line in the Preakness three weeks ago?
Can he give Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith the ultimate prize in horse racing, and anoint Hall of Famer Bob Baffert as the only other trainer aside from the legendary ‘Sunny Jim’ Fitzsimmons to saddle two Triple Crown winners?
The odds - 4/5 from post position 1, as set by New York Racing Association form oddsmaker David Aragona, for Tuesday evening’s post position draw at Citi Field - say he will.
His opponents say he should.
“I think, like all of us, we need Justify to wake up on the wrong side of the bed to have a chance,” said Todd Pletcher, a three-time Belmont Stakes-winning trainer, whose Vino Rosso and Noble Indy are among nine challenging the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.
Baffert says he could.
“Let’s see if he can do it,” Baffert said. “He came out of nowhere, and now he’s picking up steam. People say, ‘Oh, he’s so beautiful. What a beautiful horse.’ He’s become a rock star, like Pharoah, so let’s see if he can do it.”
The numbers say he might.
In the 37-year interregnum between Triple Crown winners - Affirmed in 1978 and the Baffert-trained American Pharoah in 2015 - 13 horses were eligible to add the Belmont to their victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, including three trained by Baffert himself: Silver Charm, second in 1997; Real Quiet, second in 1998, and War Emblem, eighth in 2002.
“We’re coming up with another great horse who just keeps bringing it,” said Baffert Tuesday evening. “We still have a few days to go. We know it’s going to be tough. But if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
With Justify, an imposing chestnut son of Scat Daddy who has made all five of his starts in a three-month span this year, Baffert already has defied history. Since Apollo in 1882, no horse unraced at two had been able to win the Derby. Ditto the Preakness. Further, on Saturday, he will race in the red-and-gold silks of one of his four co-owners, the China Horse Club, after having won the Derby and Preakness with Smith sporting the white-and-green silks of WinStar Farm. (Fortunately, horses themselves have dichromatic vision, which is like a human being red-green color blind).
“He’s obviously the best of the generation, I think he’s proven that,” said WinStar Farms’ Elliott Walden of Justify, also owned in part by Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. “So I think it’s his race to lose. Now, having said that, there are plenty of great horses who have lost the Belmont. He’s not a cinch by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s a horse with extreme talent, and I think that’s his biggest attribute. He’s a better horse than these horses right now.
“With that being said, the three weeks, how will that play into it? The mile and a half, how will that play into it? The great thing about the Triple Crown is there are always these variables. That’s what makes horse racing great, and why there will be [nine] horses to load up against him to try to beat him. That’s what it’s all about.”
Those nine have taken vastly different paths to the Test of the Champion, including four who faced him in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to await the final leg of the Triple Crown.
Chief among them is Juddmonte Farms’ Hofburg, the second choice at 9/2 on the morning line, who has enjoyed an interesting spring for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
‘We didn’t see any advantage running in the Preakness’
Hofburg, a homebred son of Tapit, was off a step slow in his debut at Saratoga last fall, finishing fourth going seven furlongs, but wowed in his maiden win going a mile and a sixteenth in March at Gulfstream Park. Emboldened by that performance, Mott sent Hofburg straight into Grade 1 company, where he finished a solid second to Audible in the Florida Derby. In the Kentucky Derby, he had a somewhat eventful trip but improved his position to finish seventh, beaten 8¾ lengths, in the slop behind Justify.
“We’ve had good time to recover from the Derby, which probably makes it a bigger challenge for Justify,” said Mott of Hofburg, who has been training at Saratoga. “I don't think there’s any doubt about it. We didn’t hit the board in the Derby and didn’t see any big advantage to running in the Preakness. We just pointed for the Belmont. We have to do what’s best for us, and that’s what we did.”
Mott is seeking his second Belmont Stakes victory, having won the 2010 renewal with Drosselmeyer.
“I have a lot of confidence in [Hofburg],” said Mott. “I feel very good about him. It’s no walk in the park. You got to go run around Belmont, a mile and a half. We don’t take the challenge lightly, but that’s what we’re here for.”
Mott will give a leg up to Irad Ortiz Jr. - winner of the 2016 Belmont aboard Creator - with the pair leaving from post 4.
‘The mile and a half might be the difference-maker’
The Dale Romans-trained Free Drop Billy sparkled at two, finishing second in the G3 Sanford and G1 Hopeful at Saratoga and winning the G1 Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland. He has yet to reach the winner’s circle this year, with his best effort a second to Audible in the G2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February.
“He’s always been consistent. Throw out two races [16th in the Kentucky Derby and 9th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile] and he’s hit the board every time, and the mile and a half might be the difference-maker. You don’t know if the others will like it, and his pedigree says he should. But you don’t know until you try,” said Romans of the son of 2012 Belmont winner Union Rags, a 30/1 longshot.
Robby Albarado will ride the Albaugh Family Stables’ color-bearer from post 2.
Pletcher, who won last year’s edition with Tapwrit, counters with a pair having a distinct New York flair - Vino Rosso, co-owned by Big Apple businessmen Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola and a ninth-place finisher in the Derby, and Noble Indy, owned by Repole and WinStar, who disdained the sloppy going at Churchill and finished 17th.
Both colts own Graded wins around two turns, with Vino Rosso taking the G2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Noble Indy victorious in the G2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.
Both, says Pletcher, fit the criteria of what he looks for in a Belmont horse.
“Both of these horses had a pedigree to suggest they can handle it, with Noble Indy having [1992 Belmont winner] A.P. Indy influence on the top side, and Vino Rosso being closely related to Commissioner, who was unfortunately just beaten in the Belmont, on the bottom side,” he said. “Both of them have that training style about them where they show good stamina in their gallops, good rhythms in their gallops and also have been successful at winning races at 1⅛ miles already.”
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will be aboard Vino Rosso, who drew post 8 and was tabbed as the 8/1 program choice, while fellow Hall of Famer Javier Castellano will ride Noble Indy, 30/1, from post 9.
The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo is the only horse beside Justify who will be competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown, having finished a decent sixth in the Derby and next coming out of the fog to fall a half-length short of Justify at Pimlico. The Calumet Farm homebred owns a single stakes win, having taken the G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and overall is 3-2-1 from ten career starts.
‘I don’t see any chinks in the armor’
“This horse is pretty tough,” Lukas said of Bravazo, a son of Proud Citizen. “We’re taking on Goliath, you know. This is not the junior prom we’re dealing with. We’re going to have a tough chore. I don’t see any chinks in the armor. I think we had a chance to beat Justify in the Preakness. Now he’s going to be really tough. I think it’s a lot tougher order to beat him now.”
Luis Saez will ride Bravazo, 8/1, from post 3.
Tenfold, like Justify, did not race at two. Unlike Justify, the third-place Preakness finisher hasn’t won a stake, coming in fifth in the G1 Arkansas Derby after posting a maiden and an optional claiming win at Oaklawn Park for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who saddled 2016 Belmont winner Creator.
“I don’t know if there’s a 3-year-old around better bred for the Belmont than he is,” said Winchell Thoroughbreds racing manager David Fiske of the son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and the Tapit mare Temptress. “He's by a horse that lost the Belmont by a nostril and is one of the top sires in the country, and he’s out of a mare who is by arguably the best Belmont sire ever.”
Ricardo Santana Jr. will ride Tenfold, 12/1 on the morning line, from post 7.
Perhaps the most intriguing entrant in the Belmont is Phoenix Thoroughbred III’s Gronkowski, the namesake of New England Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will be making his stateside debut on Saturday. He also will be making his first start beyond a mile and first start on the dirt for new trainer Chad Brown, although he comes into the Belmont off a four-race win streak in Britain.
“This horse hasn’t put a foot wrong since he’s arrived. He’s a real classy horse and came to me in outstanding condition. Based on his two workouts, he’s made to go a mile and a half on the dirt to me,” said Brown, who took over training duties from Jeremy Noseda last month. “In a perfect world, I wish I had him longer and had a better handle on the horse, but it is what it is and I’m fortunate to be in this position to go there with a chance to win.”
Jose Ortiz, winner of the 2017 Belmont with Tapwrit, will ride the son of Australian sire Lonhro, 12/1, from post 6.
Could Baffert’s other starter be a danger?
Doug O’Neill, who brought I’ll Have Another to the brink of a Triple Crown try in 2012, only to scratch the horse on the eve of the Belmont due to a tendon injury, is back with G2 Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen, 15/1 on the morning line.
Successful on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces, the Proud Citizen colt ran the best race of his life in the 8½-furlong Peter Pan, which has been the springboard for seven Belmont winners, most recently Tonalist in 2014.
He will leave from post 10 with Kyle Frey in the irons.
Finally, could Baffert thwart his own Triple Crown chances with Gary and Mary West’s Restoring Hope? The Giant’s Causeway colt is one of three horses at 30/1 and has only a maiden victory on his resume. Third in the Wood and 12th over a sloppy track in the G3 Pat Day Mile on Derby Day, Restoring Hope drew post 5 under Florent Geroux.
“He’s well bred,” said Baffert. “He’s as good as the majority in there, I think. He ran well in California. I’ve always thought he was a really top horse. I really thought he was a Derby horse. Then we all thought, ‘maybe he’s a Belmont horse’.”