Run at 1 ½ miles, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., is the longest of the Triple Crown races and is most likely the first and only time that the participants will run that far, particularly on a dirt track.
Because of its massive circumference and beachy racing surface, Belmont is known as “Big Sandy.”
In the last 22 years, only three Belmont favorites have won - American Pharoah (2015), Afleet Alex (2005), and Point Given (2001).
Six of the last 10 winners have been sent off at least 11-1 odds, and since 1999, the Belmont has seen six winners at odds of 18-1 or higher. Last year’s winner Tapwrit was 5-1.
Some very average horses have won the Belmont - Ruler on Ice (2011), Da’Tara (2008) and Sarava (2002) immediately come to mind. They combined to win once from 35 starts thereafter (a Ruler on Ice allowance/optional claiming race victory).
Todd Pletcher (Noble Indy and Vino Rosso) has won the Belmont three of the last 11 years (Tapwrit, 2017; Palace Malice, 2013, and filly Rags to Riches, 2007). A different jockey has won seven straight years.
Here are five questions that must be answered …
1. Can Justify win the Belmont Stakes and become the 13th Triple Crown winner?
Justify’s journey to get here has been an amazing one. He didn’t even debut until Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park and is perfect from five starts. He became the ninth horse to exit the Kentucky Derby unbeaten, the others are Nyquist (2016), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), Seattle Slew (1977), Majestic Prince (1969), Morvich (1922), and the filly Regret (1915).
He put an X on the “Curse of Apollo” by becoming the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby after not having raced at age two.
All five of Bob Baffert’s Kentucky Derby winners have followed up with a Preakness score (Silver Charm, 1997; Real Quiet, 1998; War Emblem, 2002; Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, 2015; and Justify, 2018). Baffert is tied for all-time Triple Crown wins with D. Wayne Lukas at 14.
Even though the early fractions were fast, Justify got a great trip in the Kentucky Derby. He broke clean and got a perfect spying trip behind the no-chance Promises Fulfilled. I knew going by us the first time that he was a winner.
Off just two weeks rest, the Preakness was tougher. He was forced to battle every step of the way with Derby runner-up Good Magic, and he almost got run down late by Bravazo and Tenfold.
Joe’s answer: Can he do it? No question, but if you’re approaching the race from a wagering perspective, it’s tough to take even-money or less.
Eleven of the last 22 Kentucky Derby winners have gone on to win the Preakness too, but of those horses, only American Pharoah also won the Belmont and completed the Triple Crown.
Speed figure pundits are quick to point out that Justify took a noticeable step backward in Baltimore, but I’ve watched every day of his training since and the son of Scat Daddy couldn’t look any better. He’s followed the same plan as Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and it’s not a stretch to say he’s done it better.
The Belmont is Justify’s race to win or lose. Of course, he has to overcome the distance, the track, and a few other talented horses with extra rest on their side.
2. Which Belmont horses have the best 12-furlong pedigree?
Joe’s answer: Ignoring talent and current form, I’m going to simply grade (on a curve) the stamina in the bloodlines for each of the ten Belmont contenders.
- Justify (B) – By Scat Daddy, his dam earned $130,000+ as a router and has produced two other talented route foals.
- Free Drop Billy (B+) – By Union Rags he is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to $4.6 million+ earning marathoner Hawkbill. There’s lots of stamina in the pedigree, but it tilts toward turf.
- Bravazo (B-) – By Awesome Again, there is some quality sprint pedigree deep on the dam’s side.
- Hofburg (A) – By Tapit, he is a half-brother to $1.3 million+ earning router Emollient. Sons of Tapit have won three of the last four Belmont Stakes (Tapwrit, 2017; Creator, 2016; and Tonalist, 2014).
- Restoring Hope (B) – By Giant’s Causeway out of a Tapit mare. Some quality deeper on the dam’s side.
- Gronkowski (B+) – By Lonhro, first foal out of an unraced dam who is a half-sister to $844,000+ router Flashy Bull.
- Tenfold (B+) – By Belmont runner-up Curlin, first foal out of a dam who is half-sister to $250,000+ earner Donegal Moon.
- Vino Rosso (A) – By Belmont runner-up Curlin, his dam is a half-sister to $500,000+ earning Laugh Track and $960,000+ Belmont runner-up Commissioner
- Noble Indy (C) – By Take Charge Indy, his dam earned $320,000+ as a sprinter
- Blended Citizen (B+) – By Proud Citizen, he is a half-brother to 2017 Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee and another talented router.
3. How will the pace unfold and what style horse will have an advantage?
Joe’s answer: The rail draw for Justify is a little tricky, but if you look at the potential pace scenario, only Restoring Hope (also trained by Baffert) and Noble Indy (owned in partnership by WinStar Farm and taking the blinkers off) are forward types. Do you really think if Mike Smith is going to get aggressive and make the lead that either one of those two horses will press him?
Baffert said long before the draw that he prefers having a target for Justify to run at and that Restoring Hope could play that role. Free Drop Billy, who has recently trained for speed at Churchill, could be an unexpected pace source.
Unless something unexpected happens, I expect a slow-to-moderate pace in the Belmont, which can only work in Justify’s favor.
4. Who are the main threats to Justify’s Triple Crown bid?
Joe’s answer: Besides Justify, Bravazo is the only other horse who will run in all three Triple Crown races this year. He ran a deceptively good race in the Kentucky Derby (wide trip) and just missed catching Justify in the Preakness. He’s trained for stamina recently at Churchill, and profiles as a war horse. I think he’ll run well, but I prefer others more.
Hofburg has only run four times and he’s eligible for a first-level allowance race, but he seems to be the most obvious threat. A fast-closing second behind Audible in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby, he was compromised by a traffic-filled trip in the Kentucky Derby. Well-rested off a five-week break, he has the talent upside, pedigree, and trainer (Hall of Famer Bill Mott won the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer) to get the job done.
Tenfold is also scary. He’s developed very nicely for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, and like recent stable star Gun Runner, he should get better with age. His stalk-and-pounce third in the Preakness represented a big step forward, and he’s trained every bit as well as Justify since. He has the pedigree to excel at 1 ½ miles, and should get first run on the deep closers like Hofburg.
I don’t think they can win, but Blended Citizen and Gronkowski will be utilized on the back-end of my trifecta and superfecta tickets.
I was against Vino Rosso earlier in the year and I think he fooled me a bit in his Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets win. I might use him, but not prominently.
5. Who wins the Belmont and why?
Joe’s answer: I picked Justify second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but watching him train every morning while hosting the “Road to the Triple Crown presented by Twinspires.com” has been a pleasure. That said, I still don’t feel a strong “connection” to the horse, therefore I am approaching this Belmont as a horseplayer, not a fan, and have to seek value. At 12-1 in the morning-line, Tenfold is too good to pass up.
Joe’s Belmont picks: 1. Tenfold 2. Justify 3. Hofburg 4. Blended Citizen