by Jeremy Plonk
June 6, 2018
Ten horses were drawn Tuesday night for Saturday’s 150th Belmont Stakes, and Triple Crown aspirant Justify landed the rail in his quest for a historic 13th sweep of American racing’s big three events. A near wire-to-wire winner in Baltimore, Justify has trailed only 3 horses in his 5-race career and once again is expected to be right on the engine. The rail draw likely solidifies those tactics and jockey Mike Smith can take the odds-on favorite out a few paths after the break to float his competition a bit wide into the clubhouse turn if he so chooses.
The last time trainer Bob Baffert was in this situation, the command to American Pharoah was to take the race to the competition from the outset of the 2015 Belmont. He shot right to the front from post 5, took the rail and ran off into history.
Noble Indy in post 9 figures to be the primary speed threat. He drew poorly for the second straight race after the 19-hole sealed his fate in the Kentucky Derby. New jockey Javier Castellano will use some speed from the break here with a modest run to the first turn over the 1-1/2 mile oval. Note the race begins essentially at the finish line and makes a full lap. There’s not the massive run to the first turn that you get at Churchill and Pimlico.
Horses like Bravazo (post 3), Restoring Hope (5), Tenfold (7) and Vino Rosso (8) figure to vie just behind the two logical pacemakers and all are drawn well. The wide 10-hole draw for deep-closing Blended Citizen should not impact him as he likely drops back and tucks in under Triple Crown rookie Kyle Frey. Fellow closers Hofburg (4) and Free Drop Billy (2) should have clean, ground-saving trips from their respective draws until the race picks up into the far turn and all will have to find their way.
If you’re looking for a draw knock on the rail for Justify, note that the 1-hole is 10: 0-0-3 in mile and one-half dirt races at Belmont Park over the last five years – but only 1 of those entrants was a horse 5-1 or less odds in their respective chances. Belmont Stakes winners from the rail have been blanked for 2 decades since Touch Gold’s 1997 victory. Only Touch Gold and A.P. Indy (1992) have won the Belmont from the rail since the great Riva Ridge and Secretariat did it in back-to-back years in 1972-’73. On the flipside, history shows 23 Belmont winners from the rail, most of any post, when you factor in a century and a half of history.
Justify will be a strong favorite to win the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. This horseplayer can’t find any notable handicapping strikes against the unbeaten colt, except: 1. He will be a very unattractive price. 2. He has accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time. 3. Recent history has been unkind to odds-on favorites in the Belmont Stakes. At a short price, the urge is to wager against Justify. Understood. However, sometimes the best horse just wins, baby! Another way of creating ‘value’ is to construct a winning exacta, trifecta or superfecta play, thereby turning a short-priced favorite into a more attractive payoff. By all rights, Justify is supposed to feel the heat from winning five races, including the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness within 111 days. No horse has ever done what he’s done, or about to do. However, watching him train for the Belmont Stakes, it appears he is none the worse for wear. It’s true with Triple Crown hopefuls that sometimes regression doesn’t show up until the middle of the Belmont stretch (and that’s way too late for wagering purposes) but, as far as we can tell, all is well with Justify. Even though his main battle might be with the final mile and one-half segment of a non-stop journey that began Feb. 18 in the second race at Santa Anita, he seems up to the challenge. As presented in Xpressbet’s FREE Belmont Stakes Wager Guide: Since 1979, 8 of the last 9 odds-on favorites have lost the Belmont Stakes. We already know how difficult it is to win the Triple Crown. If successful, Justify will become merely the 13th in history to do so and the first to do it without racing as a 2-year-old. Can he do it? And, if so, what’s the best way to play the Belmont Stakes in order to make a few bucks? Below is one man’s analysis of this year’s Belmont Stakes starting lineup, with a suggested wagering strategy. 1. Justify (Baffert/Smith) - 4/5 Saturday at Belmont Park, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner will attempt to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history. He’s got speed, strength and talent. Historically, that hasn’t been enough. At least not for most that have entered the Belmont stretch with two legs of the Triple Crown neatly tucked away in saddlebags. However, this guy seems different. Special. One of a kind. So far, he’s already shattered so many historical trends and jinxes that he seems immune to normal handicapping analysis. Can he continue that unprecedented run? He will need to. The trends against him continue. For example, as presented in Xpressbet’s Free Belmont Stakes wager guide, no winner of the Triple Crown has had less than 3 starts as a juvenile. Justify has had zero! Also, no Triple Crown winner has ever faced more than 7 rivals at Belmont. Justify is scheduled to face 9. Trends aside, Justify enters the race fit and ready. He’s not invincible, but he’s the best on paper and should control the pace throughout. He is our the key to unlock the Belmont Stakes door. 2. Free Drop Billy (Romans/Albarado) - 30/1 He has 9 races under his belt, with 2 wins, both as a 2-year-old. He won a maiden race first-out at Churchill and took the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. He’s been second three times and third twice, so overall, he’s good at bringing home checks. He’s been working well at his trainer’s home base at Churchill Downs. Trainer Dale Romans has had four horses finish third in the Belmont Stakes. Could Free Drop Billy be the fifth? Maybe. He’s got a closing style that ought to fit, however, we consider him a bit below some of these in the talent department. If he fires one of his best efforts he could find his way into the exotics and, like his trainer, he’s adept at hitting the board. He will be a big price. 3. Bravazo (Lukas/Saez) - 8/1 Second in the Preakness to Justify by a mere half-length, Bravazo will get plenty of mutuel support in the Belmont Stakes. Anything Hall-of-Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas saddles in this race merits respect, however, Bravazo’s form is a bit sketchy. Go back just three races in his past performances to find a disappointing Louisiana Derby effort where the 2-1 shot lugged out on the final turn under Hall-of-Fame jockey Gary Stevens and finished eighth. Overall, he’s made 10 career starts—tied with Blended Citizen for most in the Belmont—and has won three of them, highlighted by the Grade 2 Risen Star. He has fired two big races recently in the Kentucky Derby (wide, finished eighth) and Preakness—both over ‘off’ tracks. He’s likely to react off those efforts. Plus, he may have favored the wet tracks and he may not get one Saturday. He’s got enough speed to be close to the early pace, and that’s a plus because there doesn’t seem to be much speed signed on. Still, there’s a nagging feeling that this guy can’t be totally trusted. 4. Hofburg (Mott/Ortiz Jr.) - 9/2 Bred in the purple and owned by Juddmonte Farm, one of the world’s most successful outfits, Hofburg is trained by Hall-of-Fame resident Bill Mott and will be ridden by last year’s Belmont Stakes winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. Hofburg has had just four career starts--two came in Grade 1 Derbies—the Florida and Kentucky versions. He finished second in the former and a troubled seventh in the latter. While his Louisville effort over a muddy track was notable, it was what happened after the race was over that also proved interesting. As a spotless and triumphant Justify galloped out around the turn under Mike Smith, a mud-splattered Hofburg and Irad Ortiz, Jr. eagerly bounced by on the outside. This writer normally isn’t much of a ‘gallop out’ guy. However, in this case, after a mile and one-quarter in the mud, it was unusual to see a young, relatively inexperienced horse display such reserve energy. Hofburg is dangerous in this race and definitely has upside. A drawback is that he’s at a tactical disadvantage because he lacks early speed. He is rested and has trained forwardly for the Belmont. We’re expecting a big effort from him. 5. Restoring Hope (Baffert/Geroux) - 30/1 He has two things in common with stablemate Justify. They’re both trained by Bob Baffert and have early speed. Overall, Restoring Hope is nowhere near the quality of Justify, but has been working forwardly for the Belmont Stakes. He finished third, in a disappointing try in the Wood Memorial and then finished last in the Pat Day Mile in the mud on Derby day. His only win came in a restricted straight maiden race at Santa Anita in February. It’s possible that Restoring Hope might serve as a pacesetter for Justify, but he shouldn’t be able to accomplish much more than that. We’ll pass on him. 6. Gronkowski (Brown/Ortiz) - 12/1 Scheduled for a run in the Kentucky Derby, Gronkowski came down with an owie and was removed from consideration. He was shipped to the US and transferred from European trainer Jeremy Noseda to Eclipse Award winning conditioner Chad Brown. Since then Gronkowski’s worked well, according to his new trainer, and has made progress toward the Belmont Stakes. He’s won four of six starts—all on synthetic surfaces in Great Britain and none in graded stakes. His pair of losses came in turf races. The Belmont Stakes will be his first dirt start. Coming to America to race a mile and one-half in the Belmont Stakes is a challenge. That this will be his initial dirt start and his first graded stakes race is an Everest-like hurdle. We respect Chad Brown and jockey Jose Oritz, but we don’t have any other legitimate reason to back this horse. We’ll pass. 7. Tenfold (Asmussen/Santana Jr.) - 12/1 Like Hofburg, Tenfold will be making his fifth lifetime start in the Belmont. And, like Hofburg, he’s been tested in two previous Grade 1 races—Arkansas Derby and Preakness Stakes. Hall-of-Fame trainer Steve Asmussen has been bullish on this colt all along and a three-quarter length loss to Justify in the Preakness validated that confidence. During pre-Belmont Stakes training at Churchill, Asmussen’s confidence level has grown. With the added experience of a Preakness run under his girth, Tenfold could fire another good one. His DRF Beyer Speed figures have improved with each race and, once more, like Hofburg, has upside. One concern in this corner is that his last two races were big forward moves. It’s difficult to tell how he might react to those efforts. Probably have to keep this guy around in exotics. 8. Vino Rosso (Pletcher/Velazquez) - 8/1 Bred to excel at the mile and one-half distance, with a late-running style that figures to play better on a fast Belmont track than it did in the Churchill mud. Vino Rosso is trained by Todd Pletcher, who owns multiple Belmont pelts and in-the-money finishes. Granted, Pletcher knows what kind of horse it takes to win this race, but does he have one of those this year? Vino Rosso really hasn’t accomplished that much—a maiden and an allowance win, plus victory in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. However, remember that Vino Rosso was jockey John Velazquez’s first choice over several other Pletcher Kentucky Derby starters. Sent the Tampa Bay Downs route to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, it wasn’t until the Wood that the colt showed he might have what it takes to hang with the big boys. Based on Pletcher’s Belmont record and Hall-of-Fame jockey John Velazquez’s loyalty, this one deserves respect. 9. Noble Indy (Pletcher/Castellano) - 30/1 Winner of 3 of his first 4 starts, ‘Indy drew the unfortunate 19-hole out of 20 in the Kentucky Derby. That difficult starting position forced him 5-wide on the first turn. Then things got worse. He finished 17th in the Derby, covered in mud. After winning his first two races at Gulfstream, Noble Indy was shipped to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star where he was third to Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair. There he also contested the Louisiana Derby—which he won by a neck over Lone Sailor. He has a bit of early speed and that should keep him in the race from the start. Blinkers, which were added for his last two races, come off for the Belmont. With just 5 career races, he may have some upside. He’s a difficult puzzle to solve. It doesn’t appear that a mile and one-half will be his best distance, but Noble Indy is trained by Todd Pletcher and, in the Belmont Stakes, that could be enough to keep him lightly in the exotics. 10. Blended Citizen (O'Neill/Frey) - 15/1 Winner of 2 of his last 3 races, this guy is the only runner in the field with a start and win at Belmont Park! Last out he rallied to take the Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes over Big Sandy. That’s a nice feather in his cap heading into the Belmont Stakes. ‘Citizen also won the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park. He’s a runner on the improve with 7 consecutive Beyer Figures either better or equal to the one before. That said, he’s got to improve quite a bit more to be a threat in here. Bottom Line Strictly One to Beat 1. Justify Next Best 4. Hofburg Exotics Use 2. Free Drop Billy, 7. Tenfold, 8. Vino Rosso, Suggested Wagering Strategy ($99) $15 Trifecta ($45) First: 1- Justify Second: 4-Hofburg Third: 2-Free Drop Billy, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso $10 Trifecta ($30) First: 1-Justify Second: 2-Free Drop Billy, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso Third: 4-Hofburg $2 Trifecta ($24) First: 1-Justify Second: 2- Free Drop Billy, 4-Hofburg, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso Third: 2- Free Drop Billy, 4-Hofburg, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso Race On!
ELMONT, N.Y. - With a breathtaking, wire-to-wire tour de force under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, undefeated Justify became racing's 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday at Belmont Park, sweeping to a 1 ¾-length victory over Gronkowski to add the 150th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets to his triumphs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The victory over Belmont Park's sweeping 1 ½-mile oval was the sixth straight for Justify, who joined Seattle Slew - also a wire-to-wire Belmont winner in 1977 - as the only undefeated winners of the Triple Crown. All six of the rangy chestnut colt's wins have come in 2018, beginning with a maiden victory on February 18 at Santa Anita Park and culminating just shy of 16 weeks later in the Belmont. "This horse ran a tremendous race," said Smith, who at 52 is the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. "He's so gifted. He's sent from heaven. He's just amazing. "Did you see him standing in the gate?" added Smith, sporting the red-and-gold silks of China Horse Club after having worn the white-and-green colors of WinStar Farm in the Derby and Preakness. "He's standing so still ... I actually thought, 'He's not going to break today.' I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico." Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled American Pharoah to end a 37-year-old Triple Crown drought in 2015, thus became the second trainer along with "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons to train two Triple Crown winners, with Fitzsimmons having conditioned Gallant Fox (1930) and his son, Omaha (1935). Other Triple Crown winners include Sir Barton (1919), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973). "It's amazing," said Baffert, who had Triple Crown near-misses with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). "It never gets old. American Pharoah, he'll always be my first love. "[This horse] was showing me the same signs [as American Pharoah], he showed me that same brilliance. Superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He's just that kind of horse." Smith, who won his third Belmont to go with those in 2010 (Drosselmeyer) and 2013 (Palace Malice), sent Justify straight to the lead from the No. 1 post, which since 1905 has produced 24 winners of the Belmont, the most of any post position. The big colt took command before the first turn, settling into a comfortable rhythm as stablemate Restoring Hope and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo kept him in their sights. Galloping through fractions of 23.37 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.11 for the half, 1:13.21 for three quarters and 1:38.09 for the mile, Justify entered the far turn without having been asked for run, still two lengths clear of his stablemate and closest rival, with Bravazo hanging on in third. Approaching the quarter pole, with the crowd on its feet and screaming, Gronkowski was hitting his best stride from far back, picking off a half-dozen rivals to gain third even as Vino Rosso was moving into second. Once in the stretch, however, Justify continued to roll along, giving no signs of quitting, and Gronkowski had to settle for second, with second choice Hofburg coming on to edge Vino Rosso by a neck for show. "He broke a bit slow," said jockey Jose Ortiz aboard Gronkowski, who was making his American debut. "He's a horse from England. After that, I didn't have any choice. I had to drop in and save all the ground. He handled the dirt. I worked him twice and he handled it, so I was optimistic. We got a good trip, it worked out well. He broke a bit slow. I wish he would have broke a little bit better." "There was no pace and nobody put any pressure on [Justify] and he kind of walked the dog going around there," said Bill Mott, Hall of Fame trainer of Hofburg. "They were going slow and [jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.] said he didn't want to make some crazy move down the backside to go join him, which probably wouldn't have made any sense. Our horse came running. He ran well. I mean, for not having any pace, he finished up very well. "Mike [Smith]'s great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse," he added. "I mean, they're a good combination and they got the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner. A lot of people are happy about it." Justify's winning time was 2:28.18 for the 1 ½ miles over a track rated fast, unlike his two previous wins, which came over sloppy tracks at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. In addition to the three Triple Crown races, Justify's resume includes his maiden win, an optional claiming victory, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, all with a combined winning margin of 23 ¾ lengths. Owned in partnership by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, Justify earned $800,000 for the win and boosted his bankroll to $3,798,000. Completing the order of finish after Vino Rosso were Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.