There’s a reader, let’s call him Al, who regularly leaves me long voicemails urging me to write a column about how crooked horse racing is. We’ve spoken once on the phone, and I told him that I can’t write that column because I don’t share his opinion that the game is rigged in some massive conspiracy involving trainers, owners, jockeys and racing officials.
But every now and then, Al raises questions about a particular race where I think he has a valid point.
Sadly, the Belmont Stakes was one of those races.
I’m referring to a chain of events during the early stages of the race won by the Bob Baffert-trained Justify that appear to have been orchestrated to achieve that outcome. It probably didn’t rise to the level of cheating, but it left a sour taste in the mouths of many racing fans who were otherwise savoring the excitement of Justify’s Triple Crown bid.
Mostly they involved Baffert’s other entry, Restored Hope, who was rushed up by jockey Florent Geroux after breaking a step slow to briefly put a head in front of his stablemate. Once he got to the front, Restored Hope shifted outward nearing the first turn, forcing Noble Indy to his outside to take back.
Then, after correcting course and rounding the turn four or five wide, Geroux shifted Restored Hope back in toward Justify to ensure that the stalking Bravazo didn’t have a crease to pull up alongside the rail-skimming 4-5 favorite.
“He looked like a bodyguard making sure nobody got close to Justify,” Mike Repole, co-owner of Noble Indy and Vino Rosso, told the Daily Racing Form, describing Restored Hope’s unusual tactics.
Questions also were raised about Javier Castellano’s ride on Noble Indy. Video showed the jockey apparently taking hold of the speedy colt just as it appeared he would clear the other horses and be able to swing over from his outside post to engage Justify. No sooner did he do that, Restored Hope came dashing up to ensure that he would have to take back or lose tons of ground.
Baffert, Geroux and Castellano deny they did anything wrong. But Repole isn’t buying it. He told the DRF that Castellano won’t be riding for him anytime soon.
As noted in an excellent horseracingnation.com article breaking down the race, the problem isn’t just the possibility that there was collusion to set up a win by Justify, but that the Belmont Park stewards and New York racing authorities didn’t even bother to question the trainer or riders after the race. At the least, racing fans deserve that.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers tackled two stakes races Saturday at Churchill Downs: the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at 1⅛th mile on the main track and the $100,000 Regret Stakes, a 1⅛th-mile test for 3-year-old fillies on the grass.
In the former, the crowd ’cappers like 6-5 morning line favorite Backyard Heaven in a landslide, with Irish War Cry (5-1) and Honorable Duty (6-1) to finish second and third.
“Just like Bee Jersey (winner of an #RJhorseracing featured race three weeks ago),” wrote Patrick Morrison. “Another late blooming ass-kicker who doesn’t know how to lose. Betting her across the board.”
I agree that Backyard Heaven looks tough, but I think he’s facing more speed in this spot than he has previously and could be vulnerable. I’ll go with Honorable Duty and box him in exactas with Irish War Cry and California shipper Pavel (5-1).
In the Regret, a wide-open betting race if ever there was one, the crew is going to try to beat the chalk with Beyond Blame (6-1), whom they pick narrowly over 5-1 morning line favorite Heavenly Love and Romantic Moment (8-1).
I’ll take a shot with Secret Message (12-1), figuring she can improve off her turf debut over a soft track at Pimlico for trainer Graham Motion.
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Ellis Starr’s Stephen Foster analysis
Backyard Heaven made short work of six other horses last month in the Alysheba Stakes, drawing off to a 4 1/2-length victory over Hawaakom and multiple Grade 2 stakes winner Good Samaritan. Fourth in that field was Hoppertunity, who flattered Backyard Heaven with an easy win last Saturday in the Brooklyn Invitational Stakes. Having gone from a 108 Equibase Speed Figure breaking his maiden in December, to a 115 figure effort off a four month layoff in March, to a career-best 116 figure in the Alysheba, Backyard Heaven appears capable of an even better effort in the Stephen Foster.
Honorable Duty finished second in the 2017 Foster behind an incredible performance by Gun Runner, resulting in a career-best 117 speed figure. Honorable Duty won the Lukas Classic Stakes at the distance of the Foster off a three month rest in September then ran badly in two races and was given time off. Returning from nearly six months off on May 20, Honorable Duty was ridden out to a five length win over the track in a prep for this year’s Foster and so we can expect a competitive effort in this situation.
Hawaakom was no match for Backyard Heaven in the Alysheba last month, but prior to that he had run poorly when seventh, beaten 18 lengths, in the Oaklawn Handicap, which followed two months off. Hawaakom won the Razorback Handicap in February with a nearly career-best 114 figure, the only time he ran better being when second to Gun Runner in the 2017 Razorback. Assuming he was not fit enough to be competitive in the Oaklawn Handicap in April and with improvement off his Alysheba effort with a 109 figure, Hawaakom has a slight upset chance in this year’s Stephen Foster.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.