BlackJack’s Belmont Stakes Mega Preview
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
- With a Triple Crown on the line, Justify is the favorite at Belmont on Saturday.
- It’s very hard to win the Belmont after the Preakness, so will this hill be too steep for Bob Baffert and his undefeated thoroughbred?
- Of the horses that could ruin the party, I like Hofburg and Vino Rosso.
The Belmont Stakes. The final jewel of the Triple Crown. Big Sandy. The Test of the Champion. You’ll hear all of these things mentioned on Saturday, and they’re all true. This is the hardest — and longest — race any of these horses will likely run in their entire careers.
If the Preakness was the same distance as the Belmont, we would not be talking about a potential Triple Crown winner, because Justify would have been beaten. The question is, has he rebounded and rested enough in the three weeks since the Preakness to tackle this track and the horses that seek to knock him off his pedestal? Maybe even more pertinent is the question of whether Justify is a great horse or an all-time legend. And it just so happens that yours truly will be in attendance, so keep an eye on our social media handles for BlackJack live from the track.
#1 Justify (4-5)
Justify is clearly an amazing horse, and he’s shown it by winning every race he has started. The Derby was run at an extremely fast pace, and it was impressive that he was still able to win easily despite being so close to the lead on a sloppy track. That race took a lot out of him, as we saw him regress in the Preakness where he was tested and had to battle to stay up on the wire on another wet track. By the end of the race, he had the look of a horse who was starting to tire and may be due for an off day. This field is a lot tougher than the one in the Preakness, and he is facing horses who are well-rested and primed to run their best races yet. On top of that, the 1.5-mile Belmont is a full quarter-mile longer than any of these horses have run in their careers. Bob Baffert is the best in the game for Triple Crown races, so he certainly has a fighting chance, especially with Mike Smith in the saddle. Baffert-trained American Pharoah led him to the Triple Crown, but this field is considerably tougher than that one was. This Saturday we see if Justify is a superstar like American Pharoah was.
#2 Free Drop Billy (30-1)
This is a sneaky longshot with a good chance to run his best race yet. He didn’t show up on Derby Day in the slop but has slowly gotten better throughout his career. He is already fast enough to get into the exotics and should relish the added distance today. His breeding suggests the farther the better, and he always seems to cruise along, no matter the distance. His workouts have been very impressive, adding to the chances he will run his best race ever. He just can’t get caught too far back to start the race; but if he slowly moves up throughout the race, he should be competitive. Watch out for this longshot, brothers. He is one to keep in mind for the exotics.
#3 Bravazo (8-1)
This horse has improved in his last two races and has the perfect running style for the Belmont. His Derby performance flew under the radar considering he was 5 wide around both turns and lost by eight lengths to Justify. However, he has improved a lot as a 3-year-old, and considering how much he has improved in his last two races, he will most likely bounce off the short rest. I think, ultimately, he’s a little overrated here and is also a little outclassed. I don’t see him winning because it would require another jump up on short rest, and that just doesn’t feel like it’s in the cards.
#4 Hofburg (9-2)
This is where things get interesting, baby. Hofburg is bred for this race coming from the Tapit tree — which has produced three of the last four Belmont winners. Heading into the Derby, Hofburg had improved in each of his races. He is also lightly raced, suggesting he has a lot more room to get better. Tapit’s offspring also tend to be late bloomers and really get going this time of year during their 3-year old campaigns. His damsire (his momma’s daddy), Touch Gold, won the Belmont as well. Bill Mott takes his time with his horses, so the fact he has been so aggressive and ran Hofburg in the Florida Derby off a maiden win before heading to the Derby speaks volumes about how talented he thinks this horse is. I have rewatched the Derby about a dozen times, and Hofburg had nowhere to go around the turn and heading down the stretch. When he finally found room down the stretch, he was absolutely flying. If he makes another jump, and Justify doesn’t bring his A-game, then Hofburg could bring this one home. He has some tactical speed and should be sitting mid-pack before moving up and getting the jump on the leaders down the stretch. His training with Good Samaritan (a good older horse) has been extremely impressive, with the rider having to hold him back. Hofburg looks ready to go.
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#5 Restoring Hope (30-1)
The other Baffert horse in this race. He has some good speed, and you might see Baffert send him to give Justify a target to run at. If that’s the case, it will be tough for him to hold on because Justify will go right by him followed by the others down the stretch. However, if he doesn’t go to the lead, he has good cruising speed to run a solid race. The problem with Restoring Hope is that he is simply ordinary for this field. Could he have a great race and stay in the money? Sure. Could he finish in the back of the pack? Sure. Just be careful with him and use him sparingly underneath.
#6 Gronkowski (12-1)
This horse’s name is sure to attract some fan money. This is his first race on dirt as he ships over from Europe under a new trainer in Chad Brown. He has gradually improved, but he is far too slow to be considered a contender here. His workouts have been solid and Brown does scare me, but he has not had the horse long enough to have Gronk as ready for this race as he would’ve liked. The best hope for him is a big improvement to grab a slice of the trifecta or superfecta in third or fourth, but considering the competition in this field, that will be a tall task. The most likely outcome for a horse named Gronkowski is that the six horse finishes ninth and NFL Gronk giggles.
#7 Tenfold (12-1)
Tenfold has looked excellent in his last two races and has taken a step ahead in each one of them. Unfortunately, to win this one, he may well need another step up, which is a lot to ask in a short time. He is out of Curlin, who has produced a Belmont winner in Palace Malice and had others run very well in this race. I expect Tenfold to like the added distance today. He battled between Bravazo and Justify, which is the hardest place to be as a horse. Tenfold is tough for me because I could see him taking another step forward and making a run at winning the whole thing, or having an off day and falling to the back. I’d use him only in exotics.
#8 Vino Rosso (8-1)
He is another one who ran a better race than it looked like in the Derby, and I liked him coming into Churchill Downs. Vino Rosso was 5 wide on both turns and lost by 10.5 lengths to Justify. He was also coming off a huge new top performance in the Wood Memorial and was expected to bounce in the Derby. Now that he has had five weeks’ rest and is back in his home state where he has run his best, he is primed to run his best race yet. He is also out of Curlin, so he has the pedigree to relish the added distance. Todd Pletcher has done very well getting horses ready for the Belmont, and expect this to be no different. Vino Rosso’s performance in the Wood Memorial was probably the best of all horses in this field excluding Justify. He has solid cruising speed and should be sitting just behind the leaders in the middle of the pack. If he gets a good trip and doesn’t go too wide, expect him to run a big race and be competitive late. If he is in this race when they turn for home, he will be tough to hold off. Expect this horse to be a major player and look at him long and hard in your exotics.
#9 Noble Indy (30-1)
I do not expect a lot from this horse here. I thought he was the worst of the Pletcher contingent in the Derby and thought the Louisiana Derby was a pretty weak prep race. His pedigree suggests he is more of a miler than a classic horse. It is the worst pedigree in the field for the 1.5 miles today. Noble Indy has solid early speed and could end up in the lead. I am not sure Baffert wants Justify in the lead, and if he doesn’t send Restoring Hope, then Noble Indy is the only other horse here who could end up in that position. If Noble Indy ends up in the lead, I expect him to falter, as he is not bred for the distance. In any event, I’d be surprised if we see his name in the money on Saturday evening.
#10 Blended Citizen (15-1)
I’m sorry, but I simply do not see it. I think this horse is outclassed and outgunned in this race. He is a closer, which can sometimes work at Belmont Park, but I expect him to be too far behind by the time the field turns for home, and I do not think he has enough gas in the tank. I would steer clear of Blended Citizen.
THE PICK: As a fan of horse racing, I want to see Justify win a Triple Crown. It’s good for the sport and would be nice to show we don’t have to wait 30-plus years in between winners. Having said that, I can’t bet him. There’s no value, and I am concerned about him running out of gas a bit. As far as winners go, I’m going to have tickets on Hofburg and Vino Rosso. I am also going to go with a 1, 4, 8 Trifecta Box. I’m doing that because I think Justify, Hofburg and Vino Rosso are the most likely contenders to win this race and the best overall horses in it on Saturday, so I’ll put them together and hope for the best.
Also, a shoutout to my great friend Glenn Damon, who helped me out with this. I love horse racing, but Glenn lives it and made sure I didn’t sound like a jackass.