WASHINGTON — Just as it did in 2015, this year’s Belmont Stakes offers the opportunity for a Triple Crown winner. Also just like 2015, Bob Baffert has trained the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.
The Question: Is Justify as good as American Pharoah was in 2015?
Judging by performance in the Preakness, the answer might be no. Both horses had to run on sloppy tracks, but American Pharoah dominated three years ago and won by seven lengths. Justify won by just a half-length.
Justify seems to have more question marks than the last Triple Crown winner. You could point to the fact that he’s run a ton during his undefeated stretch — the Belmont is his sixth race in less than four months. What happens if Justify hears footsteps from his competitors and exerts too much energy during the first mile? Other fresher horses who did not run in the Preakness, like Vino Rosso and Hofburg, could have more left in the tank.
History isn’t on Justify’s side either. Yes, American Pharoah was the last horse to capture the Triple Crown with a Belmont win after winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But before then? Thirteen horses who had won the first two races fell short in New York or did not run at all — I’ll Have Another was scratched in 2012 with a tendon injury.
Questions aside, the field is beatable for Justify to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history. With a victory, Baffert would join “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainer to saddle two Triple Crown winners.
2018 Belmont Stakes Field
WINNER: #1 Justify
Despite the fact that he may have tired in Baltimore and really worked to win, Justify’s jockey, Mike Smith, said after the race, “Although it was a half a length, I certainly could’ve got after him a whole lot more a little earlier and made him do a little more, as well.”
The Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown races, so he’ll certainly need more to withstand his competitors. What works to Justify’s advantage, is that it’s a weaker, smaller field than the Kentucky Derby. The conditions should also be more favorable than on the wet tracks he’s run at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
Baffert doesn’t like the post position, saying they’ll just have to deal with it. But the rail, track condition, competitors and length ultimately don’t matter. If Justify loses, it will be because he beat himself. There is no way I see Justify slipping anywhere past third even if he does run out of gas a bit.
PLACE: #10 Blended Citizen
Doug O’Neill’s horse is a grinder and won by a length-and-a-half back on May 12 in the Grade III Peter Pan at Belmont Park, which is considered a prep race for the third leg. O’Neill has big race experience. He captured the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another in 2012, and the Derby in 2016 with Nyquist. Although he’s not as good as Justify, if you wanted an upset pick with a larger payout, putting a ticket down with #10 at the top followed by #1 in your exacta isn’t a bad idea.
SHOW: #8 Vino Rosso
Vino Rosso trainer Todd Pletcher’s strategy of typically skipping the Preakness so his horse is fresh has worked for him in the past. Pletcher has won the last leg three times with Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malace in 2013 and Tapwrit last year. The Wood Memorial winner is back home at the Belmont, which was the primary target for his co-owner. Vino Rosso has the pedigree to run the longer distance and has some history on his side as well: In Pletcher’s three victories at the Belmont, his horse has never been the favorite. Take a shot on a trifecta box here with 1-10-8, as I don’t think Pletcher’s horse is good enough to win but could certainly be in contention at the end of the 12 furlongs.