I’m not supposed to share this, but there’s an old journalistic trick where, when an athlete is about to accomplish an amazing feat, you go back in time and recount what was going on in the world when the quest began.
It’s effective enough that it’s become a cliche. For instance, when I tell you that jockey Mike Smith rode his first race May 7, 1982, less than a week after Gato del Sol won the Kentucky Derby and in the second year of Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, you can’t help but marvel at his longevity and subsequent successes.
But it just doesn’t work when an athlete’s entire career has spanned just 112 days.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that we’re going to witness a different kind of history on Saturday when Justify steps into the Belmont Stakes starting gate and attempts to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. This is no story of devotion and perseverance but one of an exceptional talent bursting into the room like an uninvited dinner guest.
The Bob Baffert-trained son of Scat Daddy already had rewritten racing’s history books by breaking the so-called “Curse of Apollo,” becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. Then he came back in the Preakness and showed that he also possesses Spartan toughness, facing down an early challenge from a talented foe and holding off the reinforcements who came to finish him off.
Now he faces what might be his toughest challenge, competing against nine rested or improving rivals at 1½ miles — the longest distance of the Triple Crown races and farther than his bloodlines suggest he should be able to navigate.
He does have a few things going for him beyond what seem to be his almost supernatural abilities: He is the fastest horse in the field and should be able to conserve energy with no serious challenge in the early stages. And his workouts since the Preakness gave no indication that he is feeling the effects from five races in such a brief time.
But Big Sandy, as the sweeping Belmont Park oval is known, has felled other Goliaths in the 150 year history of the race that is rightly known as the “test of the champion.” If Justify is to wear the blanket of white carnations traditionally draped over the Belmont Stakes winner, he’s going to have to dig into his well of greatness one more time.
Can he do it? Let’s see what the #RJhorseracing handicappers think.
#RJhorseracing featured races
Along with the Belmont Stakes, the #RJhorseracing crowd handicapping corps is tackling the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile, on the exceptional undercard.
In the Met Mile, the crowd ’cappers were locked in a dead heat between Bolt d’Oro, 4-1 in the morning line, and Bee Jersey (5-1), with One Liner (12-1) holding down the third spot. They see 5-2 morning line favorite Mind Your Biscuits finishing off the board.
I’ll take a shot that solid 4-year-old McCraken (12-1) will finally land the Grade 1 victory that has eluded him.
In the Belmont Stakes, the corps is backing Justify to complete his Triple Crown sweep, though many said they won’t back the favorite at the betting window.
“Justify is a once in a lifetime horse,” wrote Patrick Morrison. “Not confident enough to bet, however, and no money there at those odds anyway.”
I agree that this is Justify’s race to lose, but I think those last few furlongs could get interesting. I’m going to back the horse I picked in the Kentucky Derby, Vino Rosso (8-1), to gun down the favorite in the deep stretch and box him with Justify and Hofburg in a $1 trifecta box.
Join us next week as we seek out tough handicapping puzzles around the U.S. by emailing me or following me on Twitter.
Ellis Starr’s Belmont Stakes analysis
Hofburg is my choice to win this year’s Belmont Stakes and spoil the chances of Justify to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. Hofburg improved considerably as a young, lightly raced horse should when making his first start as a three-year-old in March, earning a 102 Equibase Speed Figure in his first two-turn race. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott believed in the colt’s talents so much that he placed Hofburg in the Florida Derby in only his second start of the year and third career start and the colt did not disappoint when second with a career-best 107 figure. Hofburg then ran creditably in the Kentucky Derby, rallying from 16th to seventh in spite of being bumped at the start, steadied twiceand forced to alter his path. Any concerns about him being able to successfully run the 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont can quickly be put to rest by looking at Hofburg’s pedigree and connections.
Vino Rosso finished ninth in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, and is another poised to improve on his career-best 106 speed figure earned in winning the Wood Memorial. After the Derby, Vino Rosso returned to trainer Todd Pletcher’s home base in New York and put in a sparkling half-mile workout that was the best of 36 on the day to show he is in top form. In terms of pedigree, there is little doubt he can successfully run 1 ½ miles. As a son of Curlin out of a mare whose sire is Tapit, Vino Rosso should have the stamina to contest the marathon distance without issue and therefore he is a strong candidate to run well enough to win.
Blended Citizen may not have the breeding for the 12-furlong Belmont, but other factors suggest he will run well. Since adding blinkers prior to the Jeff Ruby Steaks in March, Blended Citizen has won two of three races, including the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago with a career-best 110 figure — as good as the best figure Justify has earned to date. Since shipping to Belmont Park a few weeks ago, Blended Citizen has shown a strong liking for the surface with a half-mile workout that was the best of 35 on the day.
Anytime a horse is undefeated that is a reason to respect them as it shows not only physical talent but mental toughness and an alpha quality. Justify has demonstrated all that and then some in winning all five of his races to date within a span of 13 weeks. After earning a career-best 110 figure in the Derby, he slightly regressed to a 109 figure effort in the Preakness on a rain-soaked track. Since then Justify put in a very fast half-mile workout that was the best of 43 on the day, so evidently he is still in top shape. He also may be able to dictate the tempo in the race as it is likely jockey Mike Smith will use the colt’s early speed to be in front or at least second shortly after the gate opens. Additionally, trainer Bob Baffert is a master at getting a horse to hold his form as a query from Stats Race Lens yields a remarkable record of 43 for 93 for Baffert in dirt route races over the last few years when his horse won its previous start.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.