With two weeks left to go until JUSTIFY puts his Triple Crown hopes to the test in the June 9 Belmont Stakes (G1), it’s time to take stock of how the field is shaping up.

Unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) hero Justify continues to send the right signals. Acting as though unfazed by his rapid rise to stardom since a mid-February debut, and two demanding classics on sloppy tracks, the Bob Baffert pupil returned to the track at Churchill Downs Thursday for a routine gallop. His Friday exercise, embedded below, again gave evidence of a happy horse retaining his form.

We can’t be certain if the ferocious Derby pace, followed up two weeks later by a slog with Good Magic at Pimlico, took a toll. But Baffert reported that Justify didn’t lose any weight after the Preakness, and so far, his constitution appears to be standing up remarkably well to the Triple Crown grind. According to Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman, plans call for the Scat Daddy colt to breeze likely once ahead of the Belmont, but Baffert is not nailing himself down to a particular schedule.

Only one other Belmont contender is poised to compete in all three jewels of the Triple Crown, BRAVAZO. The Calumet homebred strikes me as the tough, hardy type that thrives under the tutelage of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Sixth in the Kentucky Derby after a botched run in the Louisiana Derby (G2), the son of Awesome Again was finishing fastest of all when a half-length second in the Preakness.

Likewise based at Churchill, Bravazo is another in good heart in his ensuing gallops, implying he’ll carry his upward form cycle into Belmont Park. Going into Baltimore, he had some intriguing parallels with the Lukas-trained Oxbow, the 2013 Preakness winner. Oxbow went on to finish second in his Belmont. But now Bravazo’s pattern could be reminiscent of Lukas’ 1996 Belmont winner Editor’s Note, who improved from a Derby sixth to a Preakness third en route to a career high in the third jewel.

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The contingent of those employing the freshen-up-after-losing-the-Derby angle is missing one of its key players, Audible. Speculation was rife that his ownership group, shared with Justify, would not risk running the Florida Derby (G1) winner and Kentucky Derby third and potentially derail their own Triple Crown. I’d tried to make a commercial case for letting both Justify and Audible compete, an idea that became more complicated once reports swirled that Coolmore had secured Justify’s breeding rights. Co-owner WinStar Farm pushed back on that, underscoring that no stud deals have been finalized.

In any event, trainer Todd Pletcher ruled Audible out of the Belmont Friday, citing that he hadn’t been moving well. The Belmont decision was supposed to come at some point after a Friday morning work, but that ended up being shelved and he just galloped instead. Now the son of Into Mischief will get additional time to regroup and look ahead to the Jim Dandy (G2) or Haskell (G1).

Pletcher is not lacking in Derby veterans to go to war with in the Belmont, though. Wood Memorial (G2) winner VINO ROSSO has been pointing to the third jewel all along, a logical target as a son of Curlin and “nephew” of 2014 Belmont near-misser Commissioner. Less expected was the news that Louisiana Derby (G2)-winning stablemate NOBLE INDY, co-owned by WinStar and Repole Stable (also co-owner of Vino Rosso with St Elias Stable) may join the Belmont fray.

Neither was able to land a blow in the Derby slop, with Vino Rosso a closing ninth and Noble Indy throwing in a clunker in 17th. But in their first work back at Belmont Park on Friday, they looked sharp reeling off a half-mile alongside each other in a bullet :47.04, tying for the fastest of 36 moves at the distance over the fast main track. Hall of Famer John Velazquez guided Vino Rosso, Javier Castellano was on Noble Indy, and blinkers were off both colts.

“Vino Rosso and Noble Indy both breezed exceptionally well,” Pletcher told NYRA publicity. “It was a little quicker than we wanted, but they both seemed to do it well in hand, very comfortable, galloped out strongly. After talking to everybody, I think both of them are in the mix for the Belmont now.

“I was surprised watching it at how fast they were going because they didn’t look like they were going that fast. Javier on Noble Indy and Johnny on Vino Rosso were sitting motionless and I cautioned them on the radio a couple times, ‘Easy guys, easy, you’re going a little quick.’ You could see they were sitting still, but if there was a right kind of fast work, it was done easily and it didn’t seem to stress the horses. They both came to the wire full of energy and galloped out strongly. I like the way they came back. They didn’t take long to cool out and it looked like they cooled out well.

“WinStar is fully on board with running (Noble Indy) if the horse continues to do well,” Pletcher added. “The breeze this morning was I think as good as I’ve seen him breeze. He’s a decent workhorse, but I thought this morning is the best I’ve seen him go. I think he put himself in the mix today.”

Although not as big a win threat as Audible, Noble Indy has the potential to be more of a gadfly, tactically speaking, for Justify than Audible would have been. Justify is not a headstrong type who fights for the lead, but having another forward factor is more conducive to a faster pace in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Or perhaps Noble Indy’s presence can prevent an unexpected pace challenge, or gang-up situation against Justify? We’ll have plenty of time to map out scenarios as we get closer to raceday.

The Bill Mott-trained HOFBURG offers the same potent angle of horses who ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness – a profile shared by nine of the last 18 Belmont winners. Runner-up to Audible in his stakes debut in the Florida Derby, the Juddmonte blueblood encountered trouble at Churchill Downs before rattling home for seventh.

Hofburg is gearing up at Saratoga, where he has breezed twice already on the Oklahoma training track. After getting back on the tab with a half-mile stretch of the legs in :49.32 May 18, Hofburg turned in a stiffer six-furlong drill Friday in 1:13.43. His companion, Juddmonte turfer Forge, turned up in progress to keep him honest and recorded a half in :48.40.

“Forge joined him for a short ways in the stretch to just make sure he completed his work in good order,” Mott said. “He didn’t quite get up on equal terms with him, but Forge did his job, and ensured a good work for Hofburg.

“I thought it was a very good work on the training track. The best part about it was he looked like he was moving very well. We went six furlongs with him and from the half-mile pole, he was :48 1/5; 1:00 3/5; 1:13 3/5; galloped out good and came home in good order. It looked like he took a couple of deep breaths and caught his breath in a hurry.

“I’m pleased with what I’m seeing. He came out of the Derby in good order. We gave him an easy week after the Derby and after two weeks, we gave him his first work and today he had his second one. He’ll have another one next weekend and then go on down to Belmont and get familiar with his surroundings.

“We have a lot of respect for Justify, but on the same token, we don’t want to hand him the Belmont on a silver platter. If he wins it, we’re going to make him work for it.”

Hofburg has a pedigree tailor-made for the third jewel. Sire Tapit is responsible for three of the last four Belmont winners, and broodmare sire Touch Gold dashed Silver Charm’s Triple Crown dream in 1997.

Derby also-ran FREE DROP BILLY’s Belmont status is undecided, with trainer Dale Romans wanting to wait until after his work this Sunday at Churchill Downs. Winless since last October’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) but a frequent placer, the Albaugh Family Stables runner failed to run up to his best when 16th at Churchill. Romans blames the slop for that effort.

Free Drop Billy, a pretty good work horse in the mornings, looked like his usual self back over a fast Churchill strip. In his first move since the Derby, he sped a bullet half in :47.60, fastest of 51 at the distance on May 21.

Romans forecasts improvement over the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles. As a son of 2012 Belmont hero Union Rags, and half-brother to multiple Group 1-winning turf router Hawkbill, he’s certainly bred for the trip. But the turfy orientation of his pedigree also makes a surface switch tantalizing, and Romans is considering swerving the third jewel to await the grassy Belmont Derby (G1), worth $1.2 million, on July 7.

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In contrast to the favorable Derby-to-Belmont path, no “new shooter” in the Preakness has gone on to win the Belmont since Touch Gold, a factoid TENFOLD hopes to defy. The lightly raced son of Curlin took a significant leap forward from a fifth in the Arkansas Derby (G1) to a close third in the Preakness, and further improvement can be expected. Hall of Fame horseman Steve Asmussen believes he’ll be even better at four, so whatever he’s achieving now is a bonus. As with fellow Preakness alumni Justify and Bravazo, Tenfold has had an easy week getting back into the groove at Churchill.

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Unlike the trends against Preakness new shooters, newcomers to the Triple Crown in the Belmont have a better strike rate in recent years. Six of the last 16 Belmont winners had not competed in either of the first two jewels of the Triple Crown.

BLENDED CITIZEN, the most accomplished in this category, almost made the Derby field but ended up not drawing in as the also-eligible. Trainer Doug O’Neill then pointed for the Belmont, taking in the May 12 Peter Pan (G3) along the way. Only two Peter Pan winners in the last quarter-century have gone on to land the Belmont, A.P. Indy (1992) and Tonalist (2014). But three more who placed in the local prep at Belmont have won, Colonial Affair (1993), Lemon Drop Kid (after a ninth in the 1999 Derby), and Drosselmeyer (in 2010, when the Dwyer [G2] occupied that spot on the calendar).

Saturday update: Blended Citizen blitzed a half-mile in a bullet :47.55, best of 35 works at the distance on Belmont’s fast main track, in his first move since the Peter Pan.

Baffert’s RESTORING HOPE, third in the Wood Memorial in his stakes debut, could join stablemate Justify in the starting gate. Just two points behind Blended Citizen on the Derby points list, the son of Giant’s Causeway tried the Pat Day Mile (G3) on the undercard and trudged home a long-way 12th in the slop. But the Gary and Mary West homebred shrugged that off with back-to-back bullets at Churchill, a half in :47.00 on May 14 followed by five panels in 1:00.00 May 22.  

GRONKOWSKI, winner of the inaugural European Road to the Kentucky Derby, spiked a fever in late April and could not accept his invitation to Churchill after all. His owners, Phoenix Thoroughbreds, promptly announced that the Kentucky-bred would aim for the Belmont, then surprised the racing world by transferring him from Newmarket trainer Jeremy Noseda to Chad Brown earlier this month. His Belmont status hinges upon how well he trains for Brown. As of this writing, Gronkowski has done routine exercise but no timed works so far. If Brown gives him the green light, he’d be an unknown quantity in his first start on dirt and beyond a mile.

Saturday update: “Gronk” sped a half-mile in :47.99 on the Belmont main, furnishing evidence of his well-being.

A surprise European candidate surfaced this week in the form of BANDUA, but trainer Dermot Weld is exploring a range of options including Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby (G1). Unlike Weld’s 1990 Belmont winner, the dirt-proven Go and Go, Bandua would be facing surface and class tests simultaneously if he makes the trip.

Owned by Calumet like Bravazo, Bandua has won both starts over 1 1/4 miles on boggy ground at Cork. As a son of The Factor and a half-brother to Southern California graded turf winners Tale of a Champion and Mr. Roary, Bandua is entitled to prefer better going. The 17-hand giant romped in the same early-season maiden that Weld used to introduce future Epsom Derby (G1) star Harzand in 2016, and made it two straight at the same track and trip, under top weight of 136 pounds, May 5. At the time, Weld told irishracing.com that the May 27 Gallinule (G3) would be next, but Bandua did not turn up in those Curragh entries for Sunday, so stay tuned.

Postscript: Aidan O’Brien could dispatch SEAHENGE to the Belmont, according to Daily Racing Form. Winner of last year’s Champagne (G2) at Doncaster, the habitually slow-starting colt was a closing fifth behind Mendelssohn in the UAE Derby (G2) and most recently seventh in the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day.


For more, see the free Brisnet PPs for the prospective Belmont field


Justify on May 24 courtesy of Coady Photography