Justify will try to become Thoroughbred racing’s 13th winner of the American Triple Crown, and join Seattle Slew (1977) as only the second undefeated victor, when he lines up for Saturday’s 150th running of the Belmont Stakes. The well-built chestnut must break from the innermost post position among 10 rivals with regular rider Mike Smith.
The first unraced juvenile to capture the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882, Justify showed his tractability when rating in second during the early stages at Churchill Downs. He recorded his third wire-to-wire victory from five career starts in the Preakness, battling with 2-year-old champion Good Magic on the lead most of the way before withstanding the late surge of Bravazo for a half-length tally.
From the rail, Justify appears likely to show speed. He’s fast and can settle into a comfortable rhythm if able to dictate terms on the front end. And that leaves it to the competition to run him down in the latter stages. Justify has shown no signs of wear and tear so far, but the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes represents the third difficult test in a five-week span for a colt who has no room for error since making his career debut on February 18.
Bob Baffert, who captured the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah, praised Justify’s preparations at Tuesday’s post position draw:
“We’re coming up here with another great horse that has been phenomenal up to date, and he just keeps bringing it, and he looks like — the races haven’t taken its toll on him. He looks strong.”
Justify has been installed as the 4-5 favorite on the morning line.
Here’s a look at the rest of the field in post order:
#2 FREE DROP BILLY (30-1) exits a 16th in the Kentucky Derby and his BRIS Speed numbers have declined in the last three starts. The probable longest shot in the field.
#3 BRAVAZO (8-1) will join Justify as the only 3-year-olds to compete in every leg of the Triple Crown and Preakness runner-up brings improving form into the race for four-time Belmont Stakes winner D. Wayne Lukas. He likes to race up close and another forwardly-placed trip with Luis Saez can be expected. Bravazo has the right run style for the 1 ½-mile classic and it will be interesting to see whether he can apply pressure to Justify in the early stages
#4 HOFBURG (9-2) broke his maiden in March and following a commendable runner-up effort in the Florida Derby (G1), the inexperienced colt experienced a rough trip before getting on track late for seventh in the Kentucky Derby. Conditioned by Hall of Famer and Belmont Stakes winner Bill Mott, Hofburg gained valuable seasoning and the stalker could be poised for a breakthrough performance after a five-week freshening. He’s by Tapit, who has sired three of the last four winners of the Belmont Stakes, and Hofburg will be looking to pounce on the far turn beneath 2016 Belmont Stakes scorer Irad Ortiz Jr.
#5 RESTORING HOPE (30-1) didn’t fire over a sloppy track in the Pat Day Mile (G3) and wasn’t a serious factor checking in third in the Wood Memorial (G2) two back. Restoring Hope remains eligible to show more later this year, but the maiden winner doesn’t appear far enough along to challenge here.
#6 GRONKOWSKI (12-1) has won four straight and will make his first U.S. start for Chad Brown. But the dark bay colt has never raced past a mile and is facing a serious class check.
#7 TENFOLD (12-1) didn’t make his first career start until February and was overlooked at 26-1 in the Preakness after a fifth in his stakes debut, the Arkansas Derby (G1). He outran his odds at Pimlico, overcoming a rough trip with a rallying finish to miss by less than a length in third, and the up-and-coming colt may continue to develop into a major player in the division for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Tenfold could make his presence felt again with further improvement.
#8 VINO ROSSO (8-1) offered a fine kick to post a convincing win in the Wood Memorial but didn’t make much of an impact from off the pace in the Kentucky Derby. Todd Pletcher has a pair of wins and a pair of seconds from the last five runnings, so he knows how to have a 3-year-old ready for a peak performance in the 12-furlong endurance test, and Vino Rosso is a candidate to bounce back with a much-improved effort. He’ll be rallying from off the pace with two-time Belmont Stakes winner John Velazquez.
#9 NOBLE INDY (30-1) captured three of his first four starts, including a game tally in the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), but the speedy colt wasn’t quick from an outside post in the Kentucky Derby and weakened to finish up the track. He draws another outside starting position and Noble Indy may need an easier spot to be competitive.
#10 BLENDED CITIZEN (15-1) broke his maiden on turf and won the Jeff Ruby (G3) on Polytrack. And he’s coming on over the main track for Doug O’Neill, rallying to win the local prep, the May 12 Peter Pan (G2), by nearly two lengths. His BRIS numbers have increased significantly in recent months and Blended Citizen has an advantage as the lone member of the Belmont field with a start over the track. He was able to race closer than usual last time and any tactical speed will benefit his chances in a race that doesn’t favor deep closers. Blended Citizen could be overlooked as the fifth betting choice and I think he has as good a chance as any if Justify comes up short.