Grade 1 Belmont Stakes | 1 1/2 Miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds | Belmont, Race 11, 6:46 p.m. (ET) | TimeformUS PPs
Most Likely Winner: Justify (#1)
One victorious lap around Belmont Park’s main track stands between Justify and the ultimate goal of becoming racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. While horses attempting this feat no longer have to shoulder the added pressure of ending a three-decade-long drought, it would be unwise to lose sight of the difficulty of this task. Since the 1978 Triple Crown was conquered by Affirmed, 13 horses have attempted to sweep the series in the Belmont Stakes, and all but one – American Pharoah – have failed.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector indicates that Justify is faster in the early stages than the nine other colts contesting this Belmont Stakes, and is capable of opening up an advantage heading into the clubhouse turn. Drawing the rail post position forces the hand of Mike Smith, who must get the son of Scat Daddy away from the gate cleanly. In each of the first two legs of the Triple Crown series, Smith was able to maneuver Justify to the outside of a pace rival heading into the clubhouse turn, yet he may find that task more difficult this time as primary pace challengers Restoring Hope (#5) and Noble Indy (#9) both leave from outside stalls.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, JUSTIFY (4-5): Justify will go to the post as an overwhelming favorite, looking every bit the part of a deserving Triple Crown winner. If he is victorious, he would become just the second undefeated winner of this series, following in the footsteps of Seattle Slew. Barring any unforeseen developments, Justify will only lose this race should he regress significantly. Through his five career starts, he has earned TimeformUS Speed Figures ranging from 125 to 132 – exceptional numbers for a horse of any age, let alone a young 3-year-old. Notably, all but one of those figures are higher than the personal bests of each of his nine challengers. The weather forecast for Saturday remains unclear, but Justify has proven that track conditions are unlikely to derail him. If the track does come up fast by post time, it may even enhance his chances, since he has earned his two fastest speed figures over dry surfaces.
Obviously, the major question for Justify, as it is for every three-year-old in this field, is the distance. In the modern age of racing, few American horses are bred to handle 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. Justify’s sire, Scat Daddy, is not known as a strong source of stamina, yet Justify has already answered many important questions around his distance limitations. He showed true staying power in the Kentucky Derby, where he survived one of the fastest early paces in the history of that race and still drew clear to a decisive victory. The pace of this race will not be nearly as taxing, so it stands to reason that a more relaxed early tempo will enable him to get the extra two furlongs, just as American Pharoah was able to do three years ago. Some have harped on the fact that he’s making his sixth start since mid-February, which is a demanding schedule for a top horse. While he hasn’t shown any signs of weariness in his morning training since the Preakness, it’s possible that the rigors of the Triple Crown will take their toll, as they have on many throughout history. His competitors will have to hope that is the case, because if the good Justify shows up, it’s his race to lose.
#2, FREE DROP BILLY (30-1): His Kentucky Derby was over early, as he backed out of contention around the far turn despite getting a relatively good trip up until that point. He just hasn’t progressed since early in the season and it would be quite a surprise if he were to even work his way into the trifecta against a field of this quality. Pass.
#3, BRAVAZO (8-1): No other horse has gotten closer to Justify at the finish of a race than Bravazo did at the end of the Preakness. It looked like this colt was spinning his wheels around the far turn, as Tenfold ran past him. Yet, once angled out into the clear in deep stretch, he found his best stride and was moving fastest of all across the wire. However, I think it would be wise to temper some of the enthusiasm around the efforts of Bravazo and Tenfold in the Preakness, given how the race unfolded. It essentially developed into a match race between Justify and Good Magic, whereas Bravazo and Tenfold were just picking up pieces in the final furlong as the two leaders tired form their racelong duel. Bravazo has arguably been the biggest surprise of this Triple Crown season, as many would have argued that he didn’t even belong in the Kentucky Derby following a dismal effort at the Fair Grounds. Yet he ran deceptively well to be sixth in the Run for the Roses, and validated that performance with an even stronger effort in Baltimore. By Awesome Again out of a Cee’s Tizzy mare, he’s very closely related to Oxbow, who finished second in the Belmont for these same connections. D. Wayne Lukas is no stranger to this race, and Bravazo’s tactical speed should help him stay close throughout in what figures to be a steadily run race. I’m not counting him out this time, but he probably needs others to falter in order to win. A trifecta player.
#4, HOFBURG (9-2): This is the colt that most would deem to be Justify’s greatest threat. While he finished nearly nine lengths behind his imposing chestnut counterpart at Churchill Downs, the consensus among handicappers is that Hofburg encountered more traffic trouble than any other late closer in that race. He was stymied while attempting to gather momentum at numerous points around the far turn, and only found a clear path once the field was well into the stretch. Remarkably, he still had run left and put in a strong stretch rally through the final furlong despite never threatening the leaders. Past the wire, he continued to gallop out strongly, suggesting that he finished the race with energy to spare. As one of the most lightly-raced members of this field, there is some concern that his connections may be asking too much of him in just his fifth career start. After all, he’s not a precocious type like Justify, and has been learning his lessons against top horses in Grade 1 competition. Hofburg sports one of the best pedigrees for the 12-furlong distance as a son of Tapit, who has sired 3 of the last 4 Belmont Stakes winners. If Hofburg takes the leap forward that many are expecting, Justify may be in for a fight through the final furlongs of this race. However, there is no shortage of hype around this second choice in the wagering, and I don’t believe he would offer value at anything shorter than his morning line odds. The main threat.
#5, RESTORING HOPE (30-1): Justify’s stablemate has yet to prove that he really belongs at this level. While he typically races up close to the pace, he probably isn’t quite as fast as Noble Indy. It’s unlikely he’ll be around at the finish regardless of his trip. Pass.
#6, GRONKOWSKI (12-1): He figures to take money in this race for reasons that have little to do with his ability. If I’m to assess him based purely on his prior form, it’s very difficult to make a compelling case for him. He’s never raced on dirt, and earned his way into this race by defeating vastly inferior horses going one mile on synthetic surfaces. There is some dirt stamina breeding on the female side of his pedigree, as his dam is a half-sister to Grade 1 Stephen Foster winner Flasy Bull. However, Gronkowski is a son of Lonhro, who is renowned for instilling his progeny with speed on the turf, not stamina on the dirt. I have the utmost respect for the connections, but it seems like they’re just taking a shot. Any money that he attracts just creates additional value on the other short prices. Pass.
#7, TENFOLD (12-1): As I noted when assessing Bravazo’s Preakness effort, both of these horses were somewhat aided by the flow of that race. Justify dueled Good Magic into defeat in what had essential become a match race, so the late runs of both this colt and Bravazo were somewhat illusory. To Tenfold’s credit, he at least did make an attempt to go after the two leaders when they spurted away from the field around the far turn, yet I still don’t think he ran nearly as well as either Justify or Good Magic. Tenfold does deserve credit for putting forth a career best effort in the Preakness off just 3 prior starts. However, it’s much easier to run well as a lightly-raced horse in the Preakness than it is to do the same in the Kentucky Derby. In recent years, the Preakness has drawn smaller fields with far fewer top caliber three-year-olds than the Kentucky Derby, and this year’s race was no different. It’s one of the primary reasons that horses exiting losing efforts in the Kentucky Derby have been far more successful in this race than those exiting losses in the Preakness. Tenfold has a solid pedigree to handle the Belmont distance, and his grinding running style should be well suited to the projected flow of this race. I have serious doubts that he’s really up to the task, and would rather take those coming out of trouble efforts in Louisville. Another trifecta player.
#8, VINO ROSSO (8-1): As I noted in my analysis for this year’s Kentucky Derby, this colt was never going to be well suited to that race. The Derby typically features an extremely fast early pace and a crowded field of 20 runners, two factors that are incongruous with a notoriously laid-back horse who prefers to run outside of rivals during his races. While John Velazquez was able to get Vino Rosso to the outside at Churchill Downs, in doing so he was forced to race five or six paths off the rail around both turns. Vino Rosso is once again drawn in an outside slot for this race, but Belmont’s large main oval with its more gradual turns should allow him to get into a steady rhythm, something that he was never able to do last time.
Vino Rosso’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, has a knack for getting horses to rebound in the Belmont Stakes. In the 12 editions contested since 2006, Pletcher has sent out either the first or second place finisher on 8 occasions, winning it three times – a remarkable feat in a notoriously demanding race. Vino Rosso seems tailor-made for this 12-furlong test and has a similar profile to Pletcher’s prior Belmont winners, Palace Malice and Tapwrit, who both finished off the board in Kentucky. No other horse in this brings a pedigree with so many stamina influences. His sire Curlin nearly won this race, and his dam is a half-sister to Commissioner, who was also narrowly beaten in the Belmont Stakes. Vino Rosso ran a competitive speed figure when he won New York’s Wood Memorial two back, and he has shown the ability to sit closer to the pace than a closer like Hofburg. If Vino Rosso puts forth his best effort, I believe he has a strong chance to upset Justify’s Triple Crown bid, and he figures to offer better value than Hofburg. The selection.
#9, NOBLE INDY (30-1): Much has been made of this colt’s common ownership with both Justify and Vino Rosso. He’s a longshot in this race, but he certainly has a right to run based on merit as the winner of the Louisiana Derby. He was completely ignored on the tote board in the Kentucky Derby, and he never seemed to be himself that day while failing to show his typical early speed before backing up. The distance is a question mark, but his early tactics are no mystery. Noble Indy runs best when he can be forwardly placed and Javier Castellano figures to send him to the lead from this outside post position. At that point, whether Justify goes on with it or takes back to swing outside of this horse is up to Mike Smith. If those two slow down the tempo enough, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Noble Indy could hang on for a small slice, especially considering Pletcher’s outstanding record in this race. Use underneath on deeper exotics tickets.
#10, BLENDED CITIZEN (15-1): The Peter Pan winner is the only horse in this field with experience running over Belmont’s main track. He presents himself as the kind of runner that should be able to gallop the 12 furlongs at a steady pace. However, he’s never run a particularly fast speed figure and he beat a relatively weak field in that Peter Pan score. He’s much more likely to hit the board than horses like Free Drop Billy and Gronkowski, but a top two finish seems like a stretch. Another to throw in on deeper exotic tickets.