Plenty to push Justify in Belmont

May 29, 2018 3:07 AM

While the gritty Game Magic is not going to race in the Belmont Stakes on June 9 – because he needs rest from his two tough battles with Justify, the same is true for Audible, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby.

While Audible’s owners at WinStar Farm – who also own Justify – probably do not want to add to Justify’s competition, trainer Todd Pletcher said over the weekend the Florida Derby winner “has not recovered fully from the Derby” and will be given more time off.

Despite the absence of these two high quality stakes horses, it would be a mistake to predict Justify will have an easy time of it in the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes.

For one thing, the Belmont will be Justify’s third extremely competitive race in five weeks and sixth since he began his career only 15 weeks ago. He also will have to face a highly touted European invader, Gronkowski, along with the two Preakness rivals – Bravazo and Tenfold, who rallied strongly to just miss catching him at the wire.

Beyond those three and a handful of proven stakes winners among Justify’s 10 expected rivals, I believe there is one colt scheduled to compete who could be quite formidable – even though he may go to the post at 12-1 or so.

That colt is Hofburg, the seventh place finisher in the Kentucky Derby who skipped the Preakness, but has been training superbly at Saratoga for trainer Billy Mott. Although Mott tends to be regarded as a turf-course specialist, his Hall of Fame career does include a victory in the 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer.

In next week’s column, I will spell out exactly why I think Hofburg could be Justify’s most serious rival. I also will share my thoughts on how well Justify has trained at Churchill Downs while including evaluations for every other horse in the Belmont field.

To this point, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has not lost any confidence in Justify. Why should he? After all, the undefeated 3-year-old star came out of the 1-3/16 mile Preakness in good order – if not just tired enough to need four days of complete rest.

“There were no physical issues,” Baffert said. “We shipped him back to Churchill (Downs), his home base, this spring and we did nothing with him for several days… We just wanted him to recover his energy from the Derby and Preakness.”

After four days of rest, Justify went back to the track Thursday, May 24, for a program of moderately paced daily gallops under the supervision of Baffert’s Churchill based assistant, Jimmy Barnes.

“Jimmy has been quite pleased by what he’s seen so far,” Baffert said on Saturday. Baffert then pointed out that he personally expected to be at Churchill Monday morning (May 28), to directly supervise his star colt’s training program.

“Beyond the gallops,” Baffert added, “we’re probably going to give him one workout before we send him to Belmont a few days before the race.”

As Baffert saw for himself on video feeds from Churchill Downs, and as he heard from Barnes, everything has continued to look good for Justify.

“Make no mistake, Justify is terrific; but sweeping a Triple Crown is a tough task for any horse. And,” he continued, “after watching American Pharoah do it (in 2015) I know it takes a truly great horse in top shape to get it done.”

Baffert and others who follow this game also know there have been only 12 horses in history to successfully complete a Triple Crown sweep.

Meanwhile, 23 very good – if not truly great – horses failed to get the job done after winning the first two legs. Citing just the very best of this group, the near-misses who entered the Belmont seeking a sweep have included Northern Dancer in 1964, Majestic Prince in ’69, Spectacular Bid in ’79, Alysheba in ’87 and Sunday Silence in ’89.

By the way, the 12 who completed the sweep date back to Sir Barton in 1919, Gallant Fox in ‘30, Omaha in ’35, War Admiral in ’37, Whirlaway in ’41, Count Fleet in ’43, Assault in ’46, Citation in ’48, Secretariat in ’73, Seattle Slew in ’77, Affirmed in ’78 and the aforementioned, American Pharoah, who became the only horse in the 21st Century to accomplish the feat.

So in 2018, which list will Justify join?

Will it be the group of terrific horses who just missed completing the rare sweep or will he become the 13th horse in racing history to win the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby, the 1-3/16 mile Preakness and the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes?

Either way, we all should realize Justify is a terrific racehorse. Yet, if he actually wins the Belmont Stakes he will be the only horse to get through the Triple Crown undefeated and that will place him high on the list of racing immortals!

Added Note: The 5-year-old Accelerate earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure winning Saturday’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita. That was Accelerate’s third major victory from his four 2018 starts.