Justify likely an odds-on favorite

Justify likely an odds-on favorite

June 05, 2018 3:00 AM


Justify, undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last month, is likely to be a strong odds-on favorite to complete the rare sweep of the American Triple Crown in Saturday’s 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.

While he seems the best horse and has trained superbly since the Preakness on May 19, the two horses who almost caught him in that 1-3/16 mile race – Bravazo and Tenfold – are back for more and their respective trainers believe the 1-1/2 mile distance of the Belmont will work in their favor.

“The extra distance could help us,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Bravazo was able to win three of the four previous times when Lukas stretched him out in distance. Bravazo’s only loss in that scenario occurred in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby, when Bravazo finished sixth after enduring early traffic problems in that 20 horse field. “He’s trained very well since the Preakness,” Lukas said, referring to the colt’s measured mile work in 1:42-2/5 at Churchill Downs on May 31. “He was under complete control and could have gone much faster.”

Tenfold, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, also has acted well in his post Preakness workouts. We should remember this promising colt had only three prior starts before his solid late move to finish a close third in the Preakness. “With that experience and the good work he turned in last week,” Asmussen said, “we think he’s going to run strongly in the longer Belmont stakes.”

That may prove to be true for both colts who rallied so well at Pimlico; but, if not, Justify still will have to deal with several other stakes quality colts at various stages of the Belmont.

For example, the Dale Romans trained Free Drop Billy has acted in his recent workouts like his 16th place finish in the Derby was a fluke. “He just couldn’t handle that rain-soaked track in Kentucky,” insists Romans. “He was very competitive in all of his other starts and he’s trained well since we skipped the Preakness. We not only expect him to run much better,” Romans continued, “but, we think he’ll love 1-1/2 miles.”

Among others expected to run on Saturday, the European import Gronkowski has impressed trainer Chad Brown, who also believes the Belmont’s distance will be in his favor. The same seems true for Blended Citizen, who missed the Derby, but won the Peter Pan Stakes in New York on May 12. After Blended Citizens’ Peter Pan victory and a subsequent half-mile workout clocked in 47-4/5 last week, trainer Doug O’Neill said: “We always thought he would love Belmont Park and the way he’s training, we think he has a shot to upset Justify.”

The ever present Todd Pletcher also likes what he has seen from his two Belmont starters – Noble Indy and Vino Rosso. The former entered the Derby with a win in the Louisiana Derby and the latter went into that 1-1/4 mile classic with a victory in the Wood Memorial. While neither ran particularly well at Churchill Downs, both have made positive recent impressions on Pletcher. “Our horses fit the (Belmont) and rate with the competition,” Pletcher said. “But, let’s face it,” he added, “Justify will probably have to wake up on the wrong side of the bed for any of us to beat him.”

To this reasonable point, Elliot Walden – part owner of Justify – said a few days ago: “He’s obviously the best of this generation; I think he’s proven that. But, while he’s a horse with extreme talent, he’s no cinch by any stretch of the imagination. He’s very lightly raced and still has to handle the different track and the longer distance. “Yet,” Walden added, “most people believe that it’s his race to lose.”

Maybe so, but I see one potentially underrated contender who will deserve a very close look at respectable odds of 6-1 or better. His name is Hofburg.

Trained by still another Hall of Famer – Billy Mott – Hofburg caught my eye when he had severe traffic problems in the overcrowded Derby field and somehow re-gathered himself to finish seventh, beaten about eight lengths. Of potentially greater significance, Hofburg then galloped out so strongly he passed Justify a few strides past the finish line!

Since that eye-catching effort, Hofburg has turned in two solid workouts at Mott’s Saratoga training base to suggest he is moving forward in his conditioning. To cap off this colt’s potential appeal, he is superbly bred for distance races.

While it’s always great for the sport when we have a Triple Crown winner and Justify will deserve all the accolades should he pull off the sweep, I know Hofburg will get some of my money on Saturday, perhaps in a saver-exacta play in partnership with the favorite.

Added Notes: On Friday evening, June 8, I will co-host a special Belmont Stakes-Day Handicapping Seminar at the Sunset Station Casino racebook. Please stop by. I will review the Belmont Stakes-day card that will include 10 rich stakes, including the $1.5 million Belmont, the $1.2 million Metropolitan Mile and the $1 million Manhattan Handicap.