by Johnny D
June 7, 2018
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.
Strictly One to Beat
2. Free Drop Billy, 7. Tenfold, 8. Vino Rosso,
Suggested Wagering Strategy ($99)
$15 Trifecta ($45)
First: 1- Justify
Third: 2-Free Drop Billy, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso
$10 Trifecta ($30)
Second: 2-Free Drop Billy, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso
$2 Trifecta ($24)
Second: 2- Free Drop Billy, 4-Hofburg, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso
Third: 2- Free Drop Billy, 4-Hofburg, 7-Tenfold, 8-Vino Rosso