Justify in his final work for the Belmont Stakes

Justify in his final work for the Belmont Stakes

Anne M. Eberhardt

Justify Draws Rail for Triple Crown Attempt

Scat Daddy colt named 4-5 favorite on the morning line for the Belmont Stakes (G1).

The delayed kick-off to his career didn't faze him. It only made for more drama once he dismissed the notion that when you start is more vital than how you finish.

The quick learning curve hasn't thrown him. If anything, it has only made what he has achieved in such a condensed time frame even more impressive.

Track conditions mean nothing to him. Those who have tried to look him in the eye end up blinking in the face of his exceptional ability. There hasn't been a scenario yet that has caused unbeaten dual classic winner Justify to yield his spot in the winner's circle to another, and if he remains as committed to his brilliance in the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) at Belmont Park as he has been in his previous five starts, there will be no arguing his status as one of the best natural talents to grace the sport.

Justify's attempt to become the thirteenth horse to sweep the American classics will commence this Saturday out of the inside post position, with the son of Scat Daddy deemed the 4-5 morning-line favorite to make history over nine challengers.

The rail has never been a spot trainer Bob Baffert enjoys seeing his charges break from, an opinion that hasn't wavered even after watching would-be 2015 Triple Crown hero American Pharoah  handily bound away from the inside spot during his memorable triumph in his Preakness Stakes (G1) run. With 12 furlongs to work with, a near flawless history of getting away from the gate, and tactical speed that has responded to every ask from Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, the hope is that Justify's rare gifts are enough to render his starting position a non-factor.

"I never do like to draw the rail but my horses seem to live in it," Baffert said. "I just feel most importantly the horse is doing well. The last time I went through this, American Pharoah, he stepped back right when they opened and ... I got lucky that he got away from there. So you can have a great post but if you don't leave there, you're still going to be in trouble.

"We have it, we can't change it. So we're just going to deal with it. The horse is doing well ... everything has been really smooth since the Preakness."

It's not like any other factor has been able to derail Justify's march towards racing's annals thus far.

He put an end to 136 years of chatter over what horses who didn't race as juveniles were capable of on the first Saturday in May when he turned back champion Good Magic over a rain-soaked stretch to capture the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) May 5. Faced with even more soggy conditions in the Preakness Stakes, Justify matched strides with Good Magic—who tried to take down the unblemished colt in the backstretch—before emerging from the fog to withstand a late run from fellow Belmont Stakes contender, Bravazo.

The strain of packing all of his career outings into a three-month span is something Justify's challengers are hoping catches up to him when he digs into Big Sandy this weekend. But 'hope' is the operative word, as the chestnut colt has given no outward indication a regress is coming.

In his first workout following his Preakness triumph, Justify breezed four furlongs in a wicked :46 4/5 at Churchill Downs May 29. It wasn't the time that stood out, however, so much as the ease at which he appeared to be loping along under jockey Martin Garcia that morning.

"Bob may be a little nervous about drawing the one if Justify doesn't break great but so far the horse has been perfect, so it's hard to find any weaknesses," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Noble Indy and Vino Rosso in the 150th edition of the race Saturday.

With three Belmont Stakes wins and five runner-up finishes in the race on his résumé, Pletcher is as good as any at getting his runners to peak for the final classic.

Vino Rosso, winner of the Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2), was mentioned as a Belmont Stakes contender even before his ninth-place run in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Curlin  will break from post 8 in the Belmont field with Noble Indy set to be right alongside him in post 9.

It is the latter who could be an x-factor with regards to the pace. When Noble Indy captured the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), he was right up on the early fractions. The son of Take Charge Indy will also race without blinkers Saturday.

"It's not about tactics, necessarily," Pletcher said of the decision to remove that equipment. "In his two works since the Derby, we felt the work without the blinkers was a little better than the work with the blinkers. (Jockey) Javier (Castellano) worked him both times and felt he was a little more focused being able to see horses. I think if it had been a mile-and-an-eighth race, we would have left them on. At a mile and a half, we decided to take them off.

"From the post he's in, he's going to need to leave the gate running and establish position going in the first turn. Like I've said all along, Mike Smith is going to determine how fast the early fractions are."

Mike Repole is the co-owner of both Noble Indy and Vino Rosso, campaigning the former in partnership with WinStar Farm, which also co-owns Justify.

The Belmont can be as much a pedigree play as it is a testament of form. In that respect, Juddmonte Farms' homebred Hofburg has bloodlines seemingly tailor-made to stand him in good stead when that crushing final furlong arrives.

That Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott thought enough of the son of Tapit  to have him make his fourth career start in the Kentucky Derby spoke volumes about his potential upside —and no doubt contributed to his standing as the 9-2 second choice on the Belmont morning line out of post 4. He closed from 15th to hit the wire in seventh five weeks ago and has been firing bullets in his recent workouts at Saratoga Race Course.

"I have a lot of confidence in (Hofburg)" said Mott, who won the 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer.  "I feel very good about him. It's no walk in the park. You got to go run around Belmont, a mile and a half. We don't take the challenge lightly, but that's what we're here for."

The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo out of post 3 is the only horse besides Justify who will be competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown, having finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby before falling just a half-length short in the Preakness. In terms of pound-for-pound toughness, the son of Awesome Again  has proven he is up there with the best of his generation.

Whether anyone can stop Justify from stamping himself one of the all-time greats is something Lukas has stated he's not so sure about.

"We're taking on Goliath, you know. This is not the junior prom we're dealing with. We're going to have a tough chore. I don't see any chinks in the armor. I think we had a chance to beat Justify in the Preakness. Now he's going to be really tough. I think it's a lot tougher order to beat him now."

Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy (post 2), Restoring Hope (5), Gronkowski (6), Tenfold (7), and Blended Citizen (10) round out the field.

Jeremy Balan contributed to this report.

Entries: Belmont S. presented by NYRA Bets (G1)

Belmont Park, Saturday, June 09, 2018, Race 11

  • Grade I
  • 1 1/2m
  • Dirt
  • $1,500,000
  • 3 yo
  • 6:46 PM (local)
PPHorseJockeyWgtTrainerM/L
11Justify (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateMike E. Smith126Bob Baffert4/5
22Free Drop Billy (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRobby Albarado126Dale L. Romans30/1
33Bravazo (KY)Luis Saez126D. Wayne Lukas8/1
44Hofburg (KY)Irad Ortiz, Jr.126William I. Mott9/2
55Restoring Hope (KY)Florent Geroux126Bob Baffert30/1
66Gronkowski (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJose L. Ortiz126Chad C. Brown12/1
77Tenfold (KY)Ricardo Santana, Jr.126Steven M. Asmussen12/1
88Vino Rosso (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJohn R. Velazquez126Todd A. Pletcher8/1
99Noble Indy (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJavier Castellano126Todd A. Pletcher30/1
1010Blended Citizen (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateKyle Frey126Doug F. O'Neill15/1