Trainer Bob Baffert won the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah and he’s guardedly optimistic that Justify can do the same.
“You have to prepare yourself for disappointment,” Baffert told reporters last week. “We were quietly confident (with American Pharoah), but you still have to do it. You don’t know how the race is going to play out, but I just think he still looks like he’s strong and he came out of the work really well. A mile and a half is going to be tough, but he’s doing really well.”
Justify is the odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and earn Triple Crown, opening as a 4-5 pick according to odds published by BetDSI. But Justify drew the No. 1 gate, which is the last place Baffert wanted to see his horse.
Handicappers see ample opportunity for upset. Running on sloppy tracks at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness favored Justify, but weathermen do not expect another quagmire Saturday in New York.
Bravazo is back for the Belmont to challenge Justify after nearly catching him at the Preakness finish. After not racing as a 2-year-old, Justify is running for the sixth time since Feb. 18. That is is a heavy workload heading into such a demanding race.
Another challenger, Hofburg, was bred and trained to run the 1 1/2-mile distance at Belmont Park. Long shot Free Drop Billy favors longer events too.
And Vino Rosso has spent five weeks training for this race (and looking impressive) after skipping the Preakness. A lot of smart money moved toward this entry after it opened with 10-1 odds.
JUSTIFY GETS RAILED
Working off the rail is especially vexing for a race of this distance. Experts believe jockey Mike Smith will have to push Justify toward the early lead to avoid getting pinned heading into the first turn.
“I never do like the rail,” Baffert told reporters at the Belmont draw Tuesday. “We have it. We can’t change it. We’ll just deal with it.”
If Justify moves to the front, then the speed horses in the field could press him into a fast pace. That could leave him spent for the stretch run.
Smith would rather start on the outside, move his Justify into space, read the race as it unfolds and then pick his time to move.
“Unless there’s a bad break, he’ll be in first or second place going into the first turn, and then it depends how well his jockey can get him to relax, because that is the key to winning at Belmont,” NBC analyst and two-time Belmont-winning jockey Jerry Bailey told the New York Post.
“It’s how relaxed you can stay, how you’re positioned, how fast or slow you’re going. You need to be relaxed for the first half of the race. It’s like any long-distance race for any athlete. You have to get into a rhythm, get that long nice stride going and stay relaxed.”
HOFBURG WAS BORN TO RACE BELMONT
Not every horse is cut out for a 1 1/2-mile race, the longest in the Triple Crown series, but Hofburg is such a thoroughbred.
“You have to have a horse that really wants to do that, and is capable of doing that,” trainer Bill Mott told reporters. “That’s one of the main ingredients right there. Some of those horses are just made a little different. They move a little different and have the lung capacity, and they have the whole package to do it.”
Hofburg is the son of Tapit, the sire of three of the last four Belmont winners — Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017) — as well as 2015 runner-up Frosted.
His jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., is a Belmont veteran. And Hofburg hasn’t raced a schedule nearly as grueling as Justify’s slate.
“Our horse has been getting some attention,” Mott said of Hofburg. “From the rumblings I have been hearing, it seems there are a few people talking about him and handicappers seem to like him.”
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