We'll cut right to the chase, since Justify's bid to become racing's 13th Triple Crown winner - and just the second in the last 39 years - is the last of 10 stakes to be run at Belmont Park this Saturday, June 9.
First, a look at the 150th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1), followed by some thoughts on the day's five other grade 1 races.
Belmont Stakes (Bel, race 11, 6:46 ET): The "Test of the Champion" anchors a $500,000 guaranteed pick six, as well as a $1.5 million pick four. Many bettors will hang their hats on Justify, because as Damon Runyon famously noted, the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.
Assuming a clean getaway from the inside post, Justify is in position to control the pace in much
the same way American Pharoah did three years ago, as there isn't much other speed to his immediate outside.
Justify (1) is fast, classy, versatile, and game. The only problem is price, because ever since Affirmed turned back Alydar in 1978, horses going for the sweep have been a low-percentage proposition, going down to defeat a dozen times until American Pharoah finally accomplished the feat in 2015.
In searching for potential upsetters, it helps if they are genetically predisposed to make it once around the vast expanse of Big Sandy. In that light, Hofburg (4), Tenfold (7) and Vino Russo (8) seem best equipped for the 12-furlong expedition.
Hofburg's troubled seventh and strong gallop-out in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) have been well-documented, and Bill Mott has always held the homebred half-brother to multiple grade 1 winner Emollient in high regard. He is by Tapit , who sired three of the last four Belmont winners—Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017)—as well as 2015 runner-up Frosted . Hofburg's dam, Soothing Touch, is out of 1997 Belmont winner Touch Gold, meaning that Belmont winners A.P. Indy and Seattle Slew (the only horse to win the Triple Crown still undefeated pending Justify's attempt) appear on both sides of the pedigree.
Tenfold's damsire is Tapit, while Vino Rosso is out of the Street Cry mare Mythical Bride, who is a half-brother to Commissioner , who led to the final yards of the 2014 Belmont and wound up second.
Commissioner is among eight Todd Pletcher-trained horses to have won or placed in the last 12 runnings of the Belmont. Like the trainer's three previous winners, Rags to Riches, Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit last year, Vino Rosso has not run since Derby weekend.
The five-week break for Vino Rosso and Hofburg could be a difference maker, not to mention the promise of a fast track, thanks to an improving weather forecast that calls for only the slight chance of a rain shower.
Justify went from being an unraced maiden to winning the Triple Crown's first two legs in the span of just three months, and there are cracks in his aura of invincibility after surviving late bids from Bravazo (3) and Tenfold in the Preakness.
A - 1, 4
B - 8
C - 7
The five other grade 1 stakes in chronological order:
Ogden Phipps (race 3, 12:47 ET): American Gal sensibly opted for Friday's Bed o'Roses Invitational (G3), which leaves 2017 3-year-old filly champion Abel Tasman a prohibitive choice to rebound from a troubled-trip fourth in the La Troienne presented by TwinSpires.com (G1) in her seasonal debut.
Abel Tasman (6) ran one of her most explosive races winning the Acorn (G1) on Belmont Day last year, and two bullet works coming out of the La Troienne suggest she's set to run another big one out of the chute.
Expect a small fraction of the 12-1 morning-line quote on Ivy Bell (2), who was scratched from the Bed o'Roses after drawing the rail. The stretch to 1 1/16 miles is the big question.
Unchained Melody (7) looks to recapture the form that produced a front-end win in the Mother Goose (G2) over the track last July, after a useful return finishing fifth in the Ruffian off the bench.
A - 6,
B - 1, 2, 4
C - 7
Acorn (race 4, 1:24 ET): Monomoy Girl (3) will be odds-on after a gutsy win in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), but could face a stern test from Caledonia Road (5), who comes off a good comeback race to beat older rivals in an optional claimer opening weekend.
That was the first start for Caledonia Road since cementing an Eclipse Award with a 17-1 victory in the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1), after which she had ankle chips surgically removed.
A - 3
B - 5, 7
C - 1
Longines Just A Game (race 8, 4:02 ET): A competitive group of distaff turf milers convene out of the dog-leg chute on the Widener course. As per usual, Chad Brown sends out the first two choices A Raving Beauty (7), who made short work of her foes in the Beaugay (G3T) in her United States bow, and Off Limits (3), who notched two of her three stakes wins last year on this same layout.
On Leave (1) has won four of five starts over the local greenery.
Cambodia (6) won three graded stakes before concluding a solid 2017 campaign finishing a close third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T), and has turned in two bullet works since failing to fire in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1T) first time back from a layoff.
Proctor's Ledge (5) owns a potent late kick, but may need more pace up front than she is likely to get here.
A - 3, 7
B - 1, 6
C - 5
Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (race 9, 4:45 ET): I've got a ton of respect for Mind Your Biscuits (1), the two-time winner of the Dubai Golden Shaheen sponsored by Gulf News (G1), but the Met Mile is a touch farther than his best go, and the rail draw is problematic.
This could be a coming-out party of sorts for Bee Jersey, a Charles Fipke homebred colt by 2010 Cigar Mile upsetter Jersey Town , who has won four of five starts in the United States for Steve Asmussen. For such a prestigious race with a $1.2 million purse, there isn't much other early speed for Bee Jersey to deal with.
The lack of pace could work against Awesome Slew (fourth in last year's Met Mile), but he is third back from a layoff after coming out on the short end of a three-way photo in the Churchill Downs (G2), and he shows up every time.
We're using the 3-year-old Bolt d'Oro (2) and late-running Good Samaritan (5) protectively.
A - 10
B - 1, 11
C - 2, 5
Woodford Reserve Manhattan, race 10, 5:40 ET): In compliance with the unofficial rules of turf racing in this country, Chad Brown yet again has the first two betting choices—Robert Bruce (1), the Chilean sensation who is now 7 for 7 after taking the Fort Marcy (G3T) in his U.S. bow, and Beach Patrol (10), a three-time grade 1 winner who figures to move up off a close second in the Old Forester Turf Classic (G1T) first time out this year.
The Graham Motion-trained Spring Quality was a solid second to Robert Bruce in the Fort Marcy, and the lightly-raced 6-year-old is somewhat reminiscent of Ascend, another unheralded older gelding, who pulled off a shocker to win last year's Manhattan at a $57 payoff for Motion a year ago.
A - 1, 10
B - 3, 8, 13
C - 2