CRAWFORD | Ranking the spoilers in the Belmont Stakes
Which colt is the most likely to spoil Justify's Triple Crown bid?
ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — When dominant colts have gone after a Triple Crown, you haven't seen too many willing to take them on. But when that colt is viewed as vulnerable, look out.
When I’ll Have Another was gunning for the Triple Crown, opposing owners and trainers weren’t buying it. A 12-horse field was scheduled to go to post before I’ll Have Another scratched. California Chrome faced 10 others.
Similarly, a crowd is coming after the Bob Baffert-trained Justify, who begins Belmont Stakes Saturday as a 4-5 favorite, but who will have to beat more Belmont competitors than any Triple Crown winner if he wants to join the elite club.
Who is lying in wait? Some horses with potential, and a bunch of trainers who know how to win this race. D. Wayne Lukas has won it four times. Todd Pletcher has won it twice. Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen have won it once. Every trainer in the race has won at least one Triple Crown race.
Lukas said that he doesn’t know if any of these will be able to beat Justify at his best. But if for some reason he’s not at his best, who will be in the best position to take advantage?
One writer’s ranking. (With horse, jockey, trainer, morning line odds and updated odds as of 11 a.m Saturday):
1. HOFBURG (Irad Ortiz Jr., Bill Mott, ML 9-2, updated 6-1). If something happens three out of four years in horse racing, you pay attention to it. As a stallion, Tapit has produced three out of the past four Belmont winners, with the only miss coming in American Pharoah’s year — though the runner up to the Triple Crown winner was Frosted, a son of Tapit. This year’s Tapit offspring in the field is Hofburg. He’s lightly raced — the Belmont will be only his fifth start — but he showed promise in the Kentucky Derby, which essentially was a prep race for this Belmont. He was cut off at the start of the Kentucky Derby, then had to stop and re-start again later in the race before still getting up to finish in seventh. That showed Mott that his colt had promise, and he returned to New York to train up to this race.
2. BLENDED CITIZEN (Kyle Frey, Doug O’Neill, ML 15-1, updated 22-1). This colt was among the most impressive training at Churchill Downs in the week before the Kentucky Derby, but was shut out of that race. O’Neill has been pointing him toward the Belmont, which means he’s well-rested, and has the advantage of having won over the Belmont track before, a victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont one week after the Kentucky Derby. Some of his best work has been on turf, but his win in the Peter Pan on the dirt showed some promise and his speed figure in that race puts him in the ballpark of those who could be dangerous in the Belmont — if he could duplicate it. He has been a closer for most of his races, though he showed the ability to stay closer to the pace in the Peter Pan. Frey is making his first Belmont Stakes start. It took five races for Blended Citizen to get his first win, and the Belmont will be his 11th start.
3. BRAVAZO (Luis Saez, D. Wayne Lukas, ML 8-1, updated 5-1). Another couple of steps and he’d have won the Preakness Stakes and made history as Lukas’ 15th winner of a Triple Crown race. This colt is a throwback, one of only 13 to run all three Triple Crown races while not pursuing the Triple Crown since 2008. Five of those horses have been trained by Lukas. He’ll keep Justify in his sights, which is the kind of running style you need in the Belmont, and showed three weeks ago in Baltimore that he can put together a closing kick at the end. Maybe the 3 1/2 extra furlongs in the Belmont will give him the chance he needs. The question facing him is the same one facing Justify — how much of a toll has the Triple Crown chase exacted?
4. TENFOLD (Ricardo Santana, Steve Asmussen, ML 12-1, updated 9-1). He’s a lightly raced colt whose late-charging third-place run in the Preakness suggested he could do more in a longer race. His breeding also suggests that. He’s a son of the great Curlin, who also was trained by Asmussen, and is out of Temptress, whose sire was the aforementioned Tapit. He looked to be moving forward every time he took to the track at Churchill Downs in the weeks following the Preakness. Said Asmussen, “His best days are ahead of him and I think he deserves the opportunity in the Belmont.”
5. VINO ROSSO (John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher, ML 8-1, updated 6-1). The Wood Memorial winner was ninth in the Derby, but Pletcher has had plenty of success coming to the Belmont after a Derby run and skipping the Preakness. Vino Rosso is a trendy pick to win this race, but outside of the Wood, this colt has shown little to suggest he should be co-third choice in this race, beyond the faith in a very accomplished trainer who knows how to get a horse ready for Belmont. It’s possible I’m underrating him here, but he’ll have to prove it. (I did pick his stablemate, Audible, to win the Derby, and would have Audible at the top of this list if he were running. But that’s another story.)
6. FREE DROP BILLY (Robbie Albarado, Dale Romans, ML 30-1, updated 24-1). He finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby, and hasn’t had the kind of season that his accomplishments at 2 suggested he would. He’s the only winner of a Grade 1 Stakes in the field besides Justify, and as a son of Union Rags (who won the Belmont in 2012) has distance in his bloodlines. If the leaders burn themselves out, he could be one of those charging at the end. But he probably needs a little help.
7. GRONKOWSKI (Jose Ortiz, Chad Brown, ML 12-1, updated 23-1). This one will get a ton of attention because of his name — and because his New England Patriots tight end namesake will be in attendance to watch him as a part owner — but none of that is likely to help him on the track. He’s coming off a change in trainers, to Brown from England-based Jeremy Noseda, and because of that it’s tough to know what to expect. He’s never raced on dirt, or in the United States, or in a race longer than a mile. The excitement will be fun. If it extends to the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle, it would be a shock, even with the expertise of a trainer like Brown, last year’s Eclipse Award winner.
8. NOBLE INDY (Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher, ML 30-1, updated 26-1). He settled off the lead in the Kentucky Derby but didn’t like the track, fading to 17th in the end. Making just his sixth start, his early speed my set him near the lead in the Belmont. Whether he can maintain it and have anything at the end could be another story.
9. RESTORING HOPE (Florent Geroux, Bob Baffert, ML 30-1, updated 30-1). Baffert’s “other” colt in the race, he has won once in five starts and his last race, in the Pat Day Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard, he finished a disappointing 12th in the slop. Still, he’s another entry here out of a Tapit mare, and though a major longshot, would provide plenty of storylines if he upset his more heralded stablemate.
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