Prior to Justify’s run for history at 6:46 EST tonight, Belmont Park will play host to nine other stakes races, five of which are Grade 1’s. NYRA has turned Belmont day into one of the highest quality cards on the entire racing calendar, one with a multitude of attractive wagering opportunities for even the most casual racing fan.
The Secretariat statue at Belmont Park. Photo courtesy of Queens Tribune.
Race 3 – The Grade 1 Ogden Phipps
Bob Baffert’s day will begin and end with heavy favorites. The only trainer to win a Triple Crown in the last 40 years will kick things off with last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner and champion 3yo filly, Abel Tasman. The daughter of Quality Road may well be the most likely winner here, but she has lost 3 in a row for the first time in her career. Her 4th place effort in the La Troienne on Oaks day was her worst performance and lowest speed figure in over a year. Additionally, 4 of her 6 career losses have come at this mile and a sixteenth distance where she is only 1 for 5 lifetime. While she is certainly the class of the field, her closing style may not play well in this virtually pace-less race. It would be no surprise if Abel Tasman reverses her current losing streak and finds her way to the winner’s circle, but she does not offer much value at her 8/5 morning line. Unbridled Mo has been a winning machine for Todd Pletcher, taking 7 of 10 lifetime with each victory coming at today’s distance. Her versatility will suit her well with any pace scenario, and she handled the step up to Grade 1 competition with aplomb in the Apple Blossom last time out. Pacific Wind is perfect in 2 starts for Chad Brown. She’ll need to take another step forward to handle this group, but her most recent work indicates she is sharp and ready for the challenge. Unchained Melody seems to be just a cut below these, but she will be aided by the scratch of American Gal, and her 2 prior wins at Belmont Park include a field best 100 Beyer in last year’s Mother Goose. She could be very dangerous if left alone on the front end.
Race 4 – The Grade 1 Acorn
Brad Cox’s Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl makes her first start since that scintillating stretch run at Churchill Downs. She is a very deserving favorite, and the one turn mile looks to hit her right between the eyes. She will face a fair amount of pace pressure from the combination of Starcloud and Talk Veuve to Me, who ran a very strong 2nd in the Eight Belles on Oaks Day. A hot pace will benefit the late running Caledonia Road, the defending Breeders’ Cup and juvenile filly champion who gets reunited with Mike Smith, the pilot for her breakthrough victory at Del Mar last November.
Race 8 – The Grade 1 Just A Game
This classy group of 8 older fillies and mares going a one turn mile on the Widener turf course is very difficult to separate. Dream Dancing, a grade 1 winner, is the longest choice at 20/1 on the morning line. Lull will likely set the pace under Jose Ortiz. The question for her is can she stay through to the wire against this level of competition. La Coronel is the top candidate to press Lull at the head of affairs, and she rates a very good chance to pick up the victory here as the one turn mile may prove to be an ideal trip for her. A Raving Beauty was impressive in her American debut for Chad Brown in the Beaugay at Belmont last month. Proctor’s Ledge enters this off a smart victory in the Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day. On Leave is 4 for 5 at Belmont and 4 for 8 at the mile distance. She is almost always in the photo for the win, with 14 podium appearances in 16 lifetime starts. The rail draw does her no favors in here though. Off Limits has also shown a prior affinity for Belmont Park, and she may find just enough pace up front to suit her late running style.
Race 9 – The Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap
Bee Jersey could find himself all alone in front of this Met Mile field, a position with which he is quite familiar. While this is a big step up in class for the Steve Asmussen trainee, he appears capable of handling the move given his apparent pace advantage. Mind Your Biscuits successfully defended his title in the Dubai Golden Shaheen in March and has been breathing fire in the mornings for this return to the races. His 2 prior victories at Belmont Park are the only such wins for any member of this field. Awesome Slew and Ransom the Moon seem most capable of toppling the top two.
Race 10 – The Grade 1 Manhattan
13 older males go a mile and a quarter over the inner turf course in another incredibly difficult puzzle to solve. Beach Patrol loves to run 2nd. He’s done so 7 times in 18 starts (versus only 5 wins). That said, he is the most likely winner of this race. The distance suits him well as he owns 2 Grade 1 wins over 10 panels, and he should get a very nice trip sitting just behind the controlling pace of One Go All Go. That son of Fairbanks will appreciate the cut back in distance and rates a solid chance to get brave and take them all the way around at 12/1 on the morning line. Hi Happy and Robert Bruce both have enjoyed previous success at Belmont, and it would be no surprise if either found the wire first. Manitoulin has 3 prior wins over the lawn in Elmont and picks up Mike Smith who rode him to victory in the Hollywood Turf Cup. He could certainly offer some value at 20/1 on the morning line. Spring Quality is another that should be close to a soft pace and appears capable of capitalizing on that favorable setup.
Race 11 – The Grade 1 Belmont Stakes
Many pundits saw Justify’s diminishing half length victory at Pimlico three weeks ago as a chink in his armor, a sign that he would not be capable of seeing out the mile and a half distance in this Test of a Champion. I see it differently. Good Magic, the 2yo champ and Derby runner-up, threw down the gauntlet against Justify in the Preakness. He hounded him from the outset and never let up. Justify ran the four furlongs from the half mile mark to the 3/16 pole in 49 seconds flat – much faster than that same internal fraction in the Derby. The track was laboring by the time the gates opened for the Preakness, and both Justify and Good Magic began to tire in the waning strides as a result of their intense head to head battle all the way around the track. However, Justify survived and still managed to reach the wire in time to hold off Bravazo and Tenfold. He has trained superbly since that stamina building effort which he very likely needed in order to negotiate the longest distance he will ever race today. Bob Baffert has been down this road before. Three times his horses failed to make history, but he finally pulled off the accomplishment that had eluded him and every other horseman in this country for 37 years in his most recent attempt 3 years ago. Anything can happen when they spring the latch for the 150th Belmont Stakes, and history has taught us that Triple Crown disappointments are served up with regularity while the successes are very few and often very far between. At the end of the day, the Belmont is a horse race and like any other horse race, and perhaps more importantly than any other horse race, pace makes this race. Justify will control the pace from his rail draw, and it is unlikely that he will face anything like the kind of challenge that the champion Good Magic threw at him 3 weeks ago. Justify is the only horse in the field to ever post a triple digit Beyer speed figure, and he has done so 4 times. There are lots of smart people picking Hofburg to play the role of spoiler as Empire Maker did for the same owner 15 years ago against Funny Cide. His sire has produced 3 winners of this race in the last 4 years, and trainer Bill Mott is more than capable of producing the biggest wins on the biggest of days. Bravazo appears to be getting stronger. Tenfold can gallop all day long. Vino Rosso also runs like the distance will not be an issue. Blended Citizen won the Peter Pan over Big Sandy four weeks ago. Any of these horses could provide an all too familiar ending to what 90,000 people will show up to see. I said before the Derby that if Justify could get through the first leg unscathed, he would win the Triple Crown. I’m not backing down now. In Bob we trust. Get ready for another coronation.