By Kevin Martin
Two years after trainer Bob Baffert guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown since 1978, he enters the Belmont Stakes on Saturday in New York with another chance to complete the sweep. The flawless Justify won rainy editions of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes to give his trainer another shot at history.
If Baffert captures a second Triple Crown with Justify he'll enter rarefied air as only the second trainer to complete that feat and will do so in the shortest time span ever. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons trained Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Omaha in 1930 and 1935. The Triple Crown double on top of everything else that Baffert has already accomplished would further solidify his name among the legendary trainers of thoroughbred horses.
Justify has already vaulted a daunting historical hurdle by winning the Kentucky Derby without a start as a 2-year-old making him the first to do that since 1882. He'll be the heavy favorite on Saturday and if he continues to run as he has in his five-race career he will win. His Preakness performance lacked the dominance of his prior starts if you consider the short and diminishing margin he beat second-place finisher Bravazo, but only a contrarian racing pundit would find fault in a front-running win over a sloppy track two weeks after winning the Kentucky Derby in similar conditions.
It is hard to ignore how implausible it seems that a colt with only five career races since February could complete one of the most difficult feats in racing. Is Justify that good? Racing hearts will root for Justify on Saturday, but taking into account the monumental task he faces gambling minds will look for the likely upsetter and bet accordingly.
Hofburg is the most likely to ruin the Triple Crown coronation party on Saturday. In just four career starts, he has a second place finish behind the talented Audible in the Florida Derby and a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby where his jockey had to halt his momentum at least twice due to traffic troubles. He has only a single win on his resume but his last two races have been superb.
Hofburg will be just the fifth Belmont Stakes starter in the long Hall of Fame career of his trainer Bill Mott who won the 2010 Belmont with the longshot Drosselmeyer. Mott has not run many horses in the Triple Crown races so his confidence in Hofburg, evident in his decision to enter him in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, stands as one of the primary reasons he looms so large as a potential winner.
Free Drop Billy is a longshot with a legit chance for an in-the-money finish. His poor performance in the Kentucky Derby (forty-one lengths behind Justify) shades an otherwise solid career that includes six top-three finishes in eight career graded stakes starts. He is an even-paced runner who rarely loses touch with the front of the field which gives him an advantage in a long distance race like the Belmont where front-runners are almost certain to tire. His sire, Union Rags, won the 2012 edition of the Belmont Stakes which gives him the bloodline as well as the running style to make him a compelling player.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has won three editions of the Belmont Stakes since 2007. He'll enter two colts who last ran in the Kentucky Derby with Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. Both colts won their prep races prior to the Derby but neither threatened the winner. Noble Indy is expected to press the early pace and Vino Rosso will run from off the pace. Of the two, Vino Rosso is a better bet. He will have Pletcher's top jockey with John Velazquez aboard.
Bravazo and Tenfold are the only other runners besides Justify entering the Belmont who last ran three weeks ago in the Preakness. Bravazo finished a respectable sixth in the Derby prior to his hard-charging second place finish behind Justify in the Preakness. His extraordinary performances in the Derby and Preakness are anomalies in an otherwise inconsistent ten race career.
Considering his history, the possibility of him adding a third extraordinary race in a five-week span and beating a slew of rested runners seems remote. Tenfold has won twice in four career starts and finished third less than a length behind Justify in the Preakness. If he repeats his Preakness performance he stands a chance but he faces a tough task as a lightly raced colt with only three weeks rest.
Blended Citizen won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont in early May. It was his first win over a dirt surface in a ten race career run primarily over turf. He ran fifth behind Good Magic in the Bluegrass Stakes back in April which might be the best indicator of where he stands among the best of the 3-year old class.
Gronkowski has done all his racing in Europe and qualified for the Kentucky Derby by winning a stakes race in Great Britain back in March. An injury kept him from starting in the Derby so he will make his American debut in the Belmont. He has won four of six career races in lower level stakes overseas. He is named for the New England Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski so he is expected to take more betting dollars then he deserves.
Rounding out the field is Restoring Hope who has no hope of winning the Belmont.
Of course, it's more fun to make your own picks. You can learn how to do that at Hello Race Fans. They also have a cheat sheet with a rundown of all the Belmont starters.
Kevin Martin is the founder of the thoroughbred racing history site Colin's Ghost.
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