View From The Rail: Justify wins the Triple Crown, but racing gets a black eye

Justify (left) is rushed up into the lead in the Belmont Stakes as soon as the gate opens. Photo: Adam Mooshian/

There are two sides to Justify’s achievement in becoming just the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown. On one level, of course, it is a victory to celebrate, a tremendous boost for the sport in America. On another, however, it absolutely is not.

The problem centres around a controversy over the running of two horses: Noble Indy, owned by Repole Stable and Winstar Farm and trained by Todd Pletcher, and Restoring Hope, owned by Gary and Mary West and trained by Bob Baffert.

First, though, let’s go back to Saratoga Race Course and the week preceding the running of the $750,000 G1 Woodward Stakes in late August 2017. The big favorite and ultimate winner of the race was Gun Runner, trained by  Steve Asmussen. Ron Paolucci, owner of War Story, in advance of the race, informed the New York stewards that he was planning to enter a ‘rabbit’, May B, to run with Gun Runner in the Woodward, presumably to improve the chances of his other entry, War Story, who was a strong closer.

According to this article by Dave Grening in the Daily Racing Form, the stewards used their statutory discretion to deny the entry of May B. The steward, Stephen Lewandowski, representing the New York State Gaming Commission, stated, “We feel all horses that enter should be able to win the race.”

‘Case-by-case basis’

The stewards were then was asked if all horses who are entered and declared as rabbits would not be permitted in New York races in the future. Lewandowski replied, “We take everything on a case-by-case basis.”

The stewards did have the discretion to couple the two Paolucci entries as a betting interest, but they declined to do this. In implementing decisions based on the stewards’ discretion, it is essential that their rules are clearly established and their resultant decisions are simply and publicly articulated.

Recognizing that I do not have any access to entries at NYRA prior to races being drawn, I do not recall a NYRA race since where a rabbit (known as a ‘pacemaker’ in many other countries) was denied entry.

Back now to the 2018 Belmont Stakes. The favorite, Justify, trained by Baffert and owned by Winstar Farm and three partners, drew the rail. As already mentioned, Baffert had another runner, Restoring Hope, who is owned by Gary and Mary West, highly regarded owners and breeders who have been in the sport for over 30 years. In January, West Coast, owned by the Wests and trained by Bob Baffert, won the 3yo colt Eclipse Award for 2017.

Trainer Todd Pletcher had two runners as well: Vino Rosso, owned by Repole Stable and St Elias Stable, and Noble Indy, who is owned by Winstar Farm, majority owner of Justify, and Repole Stable. Vino Rosso is a confirmed closer and came from nine lengths off the pace to win the G1 Wood Memorial earlier this year. Noble Indy, on paper, was the second best speed in the race after Justify and had won the G2 Louisiana Derby.

A decade ago, the rule for coupling was very strict and it would have been likely the Baffert horses, and the Pletcher pair, would have been coupled at that time. It would even have been possible that all four horses could have been coupled together in fact, because of the common ownership interests of Repole and Winstar, along with the two trainer interests.

Stewards’ role

The uncoupling of owner/trainer concerns has been largely driven by a desire to increase betting interest, particularly in high-profile stakes races where the top trainers often have multiple entries. Therefore, it is essential that the stewards monitor the entries, and the running of the races, to avoid perceived or real conflicts due to common interests.

My personal opinion is that Justify was the clearly the best horse in the race and is better on a fast track than he was on the two sloppy races at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. However, some do not share that view. As you can see in the video below, Restoring Hope, a Baffert trainee, broke a step slow and then quickly rushed up to sit off of Justify’s right flank.

Gary West, owner of Restoring Hope, said in an email to the New York Post, “I had no earthly idea what Florent [Geroux, Restoring Hope’s jockey] was thinking or what his race strategy was. Had I known better, the first eighth of a mile I would have thought it was a Quarter Horse race not the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Maybe the horse was completely out of control and Florent had no choice. I will never know.”

Mike Repole, of Repole Stable, and owner of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, was upset with the riding of Javier Castellano on Noble Indy, and the race flow. Repole told the New York Post, “All week and in the paddock, Todd [Pletcher] and I were crystal clear to Javier to make the lead. He broke good. Mike Smith [the jockey on Justify] broke good. We definitely saw an opportunity that Javier, being told to make the lead, could have, or at least [have] pressured Justify.”

Look at the video. While Noble Indy bumped the gate at the break, I certainly expected to see this horse getting out in front of Restoring Hope and pressing Justify.

Pat Forde, of Yahoo Sports, gave a good detailed review of the various controversies surrounding the race.

What troubled me the most was the response the State Gaming steward gave to Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grening the day after the race. When asked if there was a plan to arrange an interview with Florent Geroux, the rider of Restoring Hope, he said, “Nothing was brought to our attention.”

This was an absolute outrage in my view.  

Most racetracks employ three stewards to monitor all racing-related activities. At NYRA, the stewards consist of a Gaming Commission steward, a NYRA steward and a Jockey Club steward. Their main responsibility is to watch the horses once they come onto the track, carefully watch the running of the race, and follow the horses as they return to the unsaddling area to insure the integrity of the race and to oversee the safety of the human and equine athletes.

Last August the steward told Ron Paolucci that his rabbit was being excluded from the Woodward because, “we feel all horses that enter should be able to win the race. We take everything on a case-by-case basis.”

Wagering activity

Look again at the replay of the Belmont. Was every horse given a chance to win the race?

On the Saturday of the Belmont Stakes, $72,702,815 was bet on the one race alone. The Thoroughbred racing industry depends on wagering activity to drive the financial success and growth. It is imperative that racetrack operators and regulatory authorities maintain the integrity of the wagering pools for the benefit of their betting customers.

NYRA is one of the most important and lucrative racing circuits in the country, if not the world. To protect the bettors and the owners, the stewards must carefully look at and review horses with common ownerships and common trainers at the time of entry.

They need to use their discretion to configure the fields of the individual races and to review the conduct and results of the races. And they must be consistent. Put real meaning into the words, “We feel all horses that enter should be able to win the race.”

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