Justify trains for the Belmont Stakes at Churchill Downs (Horsephotos.com)

How to navigate betting the Belmont stakes with Justify at odds-on

"Justify is blazing a path unique in the annals of modern racing."

How one approaches handicapping and betting the Belmont Stakes is made slightly easier in a situation like this year when a horse, in this case Justify, is entering the 1 1/2-mile classic with a chance at a Triple Crown sweep. There’s no need to overthink what his final price will approximately be. With the backing of core believers and souvenir hunters, Justify is sure to be odds-on. Certainly no higher than even-money if some pessimism unexpectedly creeps in.

With the exception of Triple Crown possibilities, odds-on favorites in the Belmont Stakes are a rare bird.

You have to go back to Bold Forbes, in 1976, to find an odds-on favorite in the Belmont who had not won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Before then there were three such favorites in the 1960s and six in the 1950s.

Even the occasional Triple Crown candidate has received relatively lukewarm reception from the betting masses. For example, concerns about the speedy War Emblem’s ability to get the 12 furlongs kept his odds from going below 6-5 back in 2002. Three years earlier, backers of ex-claimer Charismatic got a starting price of 8-5 odds.
The general consensus is that Justify belongs in another category of Triple Crown threats.

Probably not in the realm of perceived near-cinches that proved not to be the case at all (e.g. Big Brown, Smarty Jones and Spectacular Bid all started at 3-10), but more in the upper range of odds-on favorite like American Pharoah, California Chrome, Real Quiet, Sunday Silence, and Alysheba.

There are few parallels connecting the scenario Justify faces and the ones those five encountered, much less to them as individuals. A horse whose career started less than four months ago, Justify is blazing a path unique in the annals of modern racing. In other words, he’s writing his own textbook on how to navigate the Triple Crown trail from a belated starting point.

The racing world Justify inhabits is also radically different than the one Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Real Quiet existed in. Those three were hounded throughout their respective Triple Crowns by a rival ready to break through and overturn the results of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes at the slightest hint of weakness. Indeed, Bet Twice, Easy Goer, and Victory Gallop all ran second at Churchill Downs and Pimlico before winning the “Battle at Big Sandy.”

These days, finding horsemen willing to run in all three classics without having won at least one of the first two is increasingly rare. D. Wayne Lukas, always the sporting chap, is one of the exceptions. For example, the Lukas-trained Will Take Charge ignominiously ran out of the money in all three classics in 2013, but the Hall of Famer’s persistence was rewarded with a champion three-year-old title at year’s end.

Lukas has Bravazo, a veteran of both the Derby and Preakness, in this year’s Belmont. While he narrowed the gap late against a tiring Justify in the Preakness, he’s not exactly in the mold of a Bet Twice, Easy Goer, and Victory Gallop with respect to depth of accomplishment and consistency.


American Pharoah (Coady Photo/Churchill Downs)

With examples of both Triple Crown success and failure in the not too distant past, it’s arguably best to look at the Belmont renewals of 2014 and 2015 for guidance on how to approach this year’s race.

The most recent of these produced the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, a 75-100 favorite who arguably could have been a shorter price if not perhaps for an ingrained pessimism that a series sweep was beyond the scope of any modern Thoroughbred. Even one who had won all but one race and had, like his predecessors in the 1970s, produced sustained brilliance as a juvenile onwards.

Bettors who ignored recent historical precedent and looked at the race as a stand-alone situation certainly took a short price on American Pharoah, if they bothered with the Win pool at all, but more serious players undoubtedly looked to vertical exotics – Exacta, Trifecta, and Superfecta – in order to make lemonade from lemons.

From the public’s perspective, American Pharoah’s primary challengers were all Kentucky Derby starters that had skipped the Preakness, most notably fourth-place finisher Frosted and sixth-place finisher Materiality. Others from this group included Mubtaahij, Keen Ice, and Frammento. Surprise Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve was relatively cold on the board, “new shooter” Madefromlucky less so.

The resulting exotic payoffs are an illustration of what bettors could expect in the event of win by Justify. The American Pharoah-Frosted Exacta in the 2015 Belmont returned at 5-1, $13.60 for a $2 wager to be exact.

Keen Ice, who had placed just twice in six previous graded stakes appearances, but who would finish second to American Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational and upset the champion in the Travers later in the summer, rounded out a $2 Trifecta that paid $109.50. Mubtaahij, having had more time to acclimate following his importation from Dubai, finished fourth and completed a $2 Superfecta worth $570.

If it seems a certain amount of prescience is sometimes required to find up-and-coming or progressing talent, like a Keen Ice and Mubtaahij, to throw in the lower rungs of Triple Crown exotics plays, well, you’ve hit on the head one of the essences of betting the classics year in and year out.

Justify will be facing his own slew of rivals not seen since the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Like Frosted, Vino Rosso is a Wood Memorial winner whose home base is Belmont. Hofburg has been well-regarded since running second to Audible in the Florida Derby in only his third career start. Free Drop Billy, not quite cut from the same cloth as Keen Ice, shares with that horse a connection of trainer Dale Romans.

"In two incarnations in its history, the Peter Pan has been a solid enough Belmont prep"

There’s a strain of thought that if Justify is to be denied, the cause would most likely be self-inflicted.

That is, he beats himself. Certainly his eagerness to attend fast or contested paces in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness might not be the preferred strategy to replicate over a grueling 1 1/2 miles.

The unpredictable can arise, of course, and bettors every day of the year simply roll the dice and hope for the best. The 2014 Belmont is a case in point when California Chrome stumbled leaving the gate and grabbed a quarter in the opening stages. While not the sole factor for his defeat, it certainly contributed to it.

Like the field American Pharoah would face a year later, the 2014 Belmont was largely comprised of horses California Chrome had beaten convincingly enough at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Of the Triple Crown “new shooters,” the most popular in the race was Tonalist, who had won two of four starts including the Peter Pan in dominating fashion by four lengths in the slop.

In two incarnations in its history, the Peter Pan has been a solid enough Belmont prep for horses unlucky enough not to have gone through, or not quite ready to go through, the rigors of one or both of the earlier classics. Now run a week after the Kentucky Derby, it can be a useful stakes introduction for an aspiring colt or back-up for a horse that didn’t make the Derby cut.

'Three of those four Belmonts were won by Triple Crown “new shooters,”'

With Triple Crown “new shooters” consistent enough visitors to the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle, it made sense to give respect to a horse like Tonalist, who started as the 9-1 fifth choice in a field of 11. In the end he proved best, albeit narrowly over Peter Pan runner-up Commissioner, producing a rare Belmont Stakes Exacta ($348 for $2) comprised entirely of Triple Crown “new shooters.”

Finishing third was longshot Medal Count, who had gone unplaced in the Derby and skipped the Preakness. California Chrome finished in a dead heat for fourth with Wicked Strong, who Chrome had easily turned back at Churchill Downs. The $2 Trifecta was worth $6,781, and the $2 Superfecta payouts were $7,616 and $11,467.

Bettors who didn’t like California Chrome at all and were willing to exclude him from their more complex wagers were handsomely rewarded for the most part, albeit by default after the issues he had at the start. In the vertical exotics era of Belmont history, a little over 30 years, only Alysheba, War Emblem, Big Brown, and California Chrome among Triple Crown candidates finished out of the top three.

Three of those four Belmonts were won by Triple Crown “new shooters,” and Justify faces a few of those. However, only Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen seems logical enough. Then again, logic sometimes gets thrown out the window. Think Sarava over War Emblem or Da’ Tara over Big Brown. Relying on Justify to throw a complete clunker is unlikely to be to most people’s taste, but the possibility of scoring a windfall will be attractive to some.

Like most races horseplayers encounter on a routine basis, how they bet the Belmont Stakes comes down to how they feel about the favorite. Conveniently, the race history is well documented and readily available, providing a guide, and perhaps inspiration, whatever that opinion may be.