“He’s just breathing fire out there.”
— Trainer Bob Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, on Justify’s last workout before heading to Belmont Park
“He can control the race whatever happens. He’s already proven he can beat us –twice. I think we’re all in trouble.”
— Wayne Lukas
ELMONT, N.Y. — In 2015, there were 22,936 thoroughbred horses born in North America. Now, three years later, only one remains with the chance to prove to future historians that he, alone, was the golden foal.
On Saturday, Justify goes into the starting gate in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park for final exams. And if there is a caution to throw at the chalk bettors, it is this: Admittedly, Justify is the best 3-year-old in America.
That’s obvious when you look at the tapes of all his races. He has the kind of speed and the incredible ability to jump out at the exact moment the gate springs open that have exempted him from ever running a race with the dirt or mud being kicked in his face.
In horse racing, speed always shows its import in every race — either the abundance of it or the lack of it dictate the strategy of every other horse that has a shot.
Justify’s speed will impact how the other nine horses run their race. The stalkers will have to narrow the distance from which they usually operate in terms of their late urges. But what if the residue of the Preakness, where Justify was forced to face the toughest challenge of his career, impacts on all we have seen of this exceptional horse?
What if, as Nick Zito, a trainer who twice beat heavy favorites with his long shots in the Belmont Stakes, the one horse who can beat him is himself?
The problem, if that does happen, will stem from so many races close together, and that includes the ones that preceded his Derby and Preakness wins. The problem could find its genesis in fatigue. There are at least five others in this field who have the ability to take advantage of that
That’s clearly the intangible factor. But for all of them, beyond what we have grown to know about Justify’s rare ability, there are pitfalls of Belmont Park. These are not to be taken lightly — particularly by jockeys, like Kyle Frey, who do not race here often or in one case, hardly at all.
Take, for example, the merits of the gifted challenger from the West Coast, Blended Citizen. Here is a stalker horse with talent but ordinary speed numbers. He won the Peter Pan at Belmont, but that was the only time Frey has ever ridden at the Big Sandy, Belmont’s nickname.
For that problem, I refer you to Angel Cordero, a New York-based jockey of enormous stature who won more than 7,000 races and earned almost $165 million. In the Broadway production of the “Music Man,” there is a traveling salesman who, on a railroad car in Iowa, disparages the talent of another salesman by singing, “But he doesn’t know the territory.”
So it is with Blended Citizen’s jockey and any other jockey who is not totally familiar with Belmont Park. That situation could limit his potential to be in the mix. Cordero makes no secret of his belief that no racetrack takes more skill to ride than Belmont Park.
“If you don’t ride here,” he says, “you can easily get confused by it. It’s so big and the turns are so much wider, you can lose track of where you are. In a mile-and-a-half race, you can mistake the three-eighths pole for the quarter pole and leave early. I know four Belmonts that should have been won but were lost over that.”
Here are the hopefuls with the best shot at catching Justify, in no particular order, would include:
- Hofburg, an improving horse that got much needed rest when he skipped the Preakness. His trainer, Bill Mott, has quiet success and knows the territory.
- Bravazo, who ran a surprisingly good race against Justify in the Preakness.
- Vino Rosso, who has the benefit of Belmont-winning trainer Todd Pletcher and Jockey John Velazquez who also knows the territory.
- Tenfold, third in the Preakness, who, like Hofburg. is quietly improving.
- Noble Indy, who has good early speed and probably will use it quickly. But he seems to lack the stamina for the job.
One last reminder here: Justify is flirting with the Triple Crown on merit. If fatigue doesn’t beat him, then nobody will. But before you bet the farm for whatever reason on whatever colt, I refer you to the wit and wisdom of an old groom I once knew named Shotgun Foley. He was grazing a Kentucky Derby horse behind a barn at Churchill Downs the morning before my first Derby.
“Shotgun,” I asked him, “do you like that horse?”
“I love this horse.”
“I assume you will bet all you can on him.”
He stared at me for a moment and then he said:
“Young man, I have a bit of advice for you: I suggest you remember it if you plan to stay in this business. Hosses is smarter than people. I don’t see no hosses standing in no line to bet on no peoples.”
Go argue with that.
Star-Ledger Columnist Emeritus Jerry Izenberg has covered all 12 races that produced the only Triple Crown winners since 1948–Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.