Plenty of can't miss prospects missed Triple Crown at Belmont Stakes
May 22, 2018 3:00 AM
by Dave Valento
Justify, trained by Bob Baffert, won the Preakness in a dense fog on Saturday on the boggy Pimlico track. The win pushed Justify to a 5 for 5 record and pennies short of $3 million in earnings. More importantly, Justify becomes the 36th three-year-old to head to the Belmont Stakes with a shot at becoming a Triple Crown winner.
Despite his unblemished record, there are going to be detractors. He earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure for the Preakness win, which is the lowest of his career. For the first time there were horses getting to him late and the margin of victory was half of a length. His Beyer Speed Figures have gone from 107 in the Santa Anita Derby to 103 in the Kentucky Derby to 97 in the Preakness.
The Belmont Stakes has typically been a difficult hurdle for those trying to complete the uncommon sweep. In 2015, American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert, was able to finish the job and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and just the fourth since Citation in 1948. Baffert himself was on the wrong end of history the first three times he had a shot at the Triple Crown (Silver Charm 1997, Real Quiet 1998 and War Emblem 2002).
While Justify looks like an overwhelming favorite in New York on June 9, one doesn’t have to go too far back to find similar “can’t miss” prospects who were in this position. Big Brown (2008) is the best comparison to Justify. He was also an undefeated five-for-five after strong wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He was never comfortable in the Belmont at odds of 1-5 and was eased in the stretch. After the Belmont Stakes, Big Brown won his next two starts and retired seven for eight. For unexplainable reasons, Big Brown failed to show up in New York.
Smarty Jones (2004) was also undefeated (8 for 8) when he lined up as a 1-5 favorite in the Belmont Stakes. Unlike Justify, Smarty Jones destroyed the field in the Preakness by a widening 11½ lengths. His front running style was similar to Justify although he normally sat second or third early. In the Belmont Stakes, jockey Stewart Elliott went to the lead early, opened up on the turn, and hit the proverbial brick wall in the final furlong. He was a vulnerable target for Birdstone, the only one moving in the stretch, and was run down by that one late. One could envision a similar scenario this year.
The list of 12 Triple Crown winners does not include any flukes. Charismatic had a shot at the Triple Crown in 1999. He came out of nowhere to win the Derby and Preakness for trainer D Wayne Lukas. He would have been a fluke had he won the Belmont. Just a few months earlier he had started in a maiden claiming race.
Justify has now run on sloppy or muddy tracks in three of his five starts. In the two fast track races he won by 9 in his debut and earned a career best 107 Beyer in his Santa Anita Derby win over Bolt d’Oro. The track was favoring speed at Pimlico last Saturday but none of the wire to wire winners earlier in the card had to do what Justify did. He went nose to nose with the Derby runner-up, Good Magic, and put that one away and held off the closers. In some respects, it can be viewed as the best race Justify has run. He certainly proved he can handle adversity.
The rain wasn’t unexpected in Baltimore for the Preakness weekend. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the turf races were moved to the main track and a large percentage of the horses were scratched. It made the handicapping and betting process very difficult, especially since there was confusion on Friday whether all of the races had come off the turf.
Racetrack officials cannot control the weather. But on big days where the entire horseplaying nation is focused on their product better communication is needed. It needs to be early, precise and consistent. That wasn’t the case last weekend.
Let’s hope it’s not an issue in New York.
Play of the Week: It comes in Race 8 at Canterbury Park this Friday. This is a maiden claiming race at 6.5 furlongs on the dirt. No. 7 Button Mushroom is the selection. She ships in from Oaklawn Park where she was facing Arkansas-bred maiden claimers. She had picked off many horses with her deep closing style. She gets an extra half furlong in this spot and that should be all she needs to get up late. She is 5-1 on the morning line. Post time for the 8th race is 7:50 p.m. PT.