For the first time since American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, there's a Triple Crown on the line. Once again, that Triple Crown prospect hails from the barn of Bob Baffert, drawing comparisons to American Pharoah. He comes into the Belmont undefeated, inspiring Seattle Slew references from his most steadfast boosters and Smarty Jones references from the dubious.
JUSTIFY dispelled the Curse of Apollo on a sloppy Kentucky afternoon five weeks ago. Fourteen days later, he held BRAVAZO and TENFOLD at bay on a sloppy afternoon in Baltimore.
Now, nine foes stand between JUSTIFY and a Triple Crown. We look at Justify, and all nine challengers.
We also provide selections for all of the stakes races on the card on a chart at the bottom. The Belmont Stakes Racing Festival has become the midyear centerpiece of American racing, and with good reason. Thursday and Friday have eight excellent stakes races spread across the two days, which we address in a separate piece. Saturday's card features ten stakes races on its own, including six Grade 1 events.
Belmont coverage begins on Friday, with a Belmont Access show on NBCSN from 4:00pm-5:00pm CDT. Coverage returns to NBCSN, which will broadcast analysis and undercard races from 1:00pm-3:00pm CDT on Saturday. The broadcast them switches to the flagship NBC, which will broadcast continued coverage of the undercard as well as the Belmont Stakes from 3:00pm-6:00pm CDT.
Horse Racing Radio Network will also provide audio coverage on Saturday, with an undercard show from 1:00pm-4:00pm CDT and a Belmont Stakes show from 4:00pm-6:30pm CDT. Both shows will broadcast on Sirius/XM 93 and on the HRRN website.
Selections for the Jaipur S., Just a Game S., and Manhattan S. are for turf only. Updated Saturday, June 9 to account for the dry weather, as opposed to rain forecast earlier in the week.
Saturday, June 9 - Belmont Park
Race 11: Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1), three-year-olds, one and one half miles on the dirt, post time 6:46pm
- JUSTIFY (4/5) - For a horse who went into the Kentucky Derby nigh-on unproven, he comes into the Belmont having proven he is a freak. He was right up on Promises Fulfilled's torrid fractions in the Derby and still came home well clear. He had Good Magic breathing down his neck for most of the Preakness and still had enough to prove himself in a close finish, to hold off BRAVAZO and TENFOLD flying at him. Both of his Triple Crown race wins, plus one of his earlier California races, came over a wet track. But, he also has a pair of west coast wins over a dry track, suggesting he's not just a mudder. Is he the most likely winner of the Belmont? Probably. He is the most talented runner in his class at this point in time. But, is he impenetrable? No. There are others bred better for the mile and a half, and it remains to be seen what two monster efforts in the last five weeks have taken out of him. You have to use JUSTIFY somewhere, but at odds-on, it's worth finding a viable alternative.
- FREE DROP BILLY (30/1) - I've been on the FREE DROP BILLY train since about this time last year, but this doesn't look like his day. Perhaps no one is better bred for the mile and a half than FREE DROP BILLY, by 2012 Belmont winner Union Rags out of Trensa, a Giant's Causeway mare who has already produced a Grade 1 winner at a mile and a half, Hawkbill. But, despite the majesty of his distance breeding, there is a pace question. The Belmont tends to be kinder to horses who are a bit more tactical than FREE DROP BILLY has been. But? Originally, there was a second strike, the going. Most of the week projected a high chance of heavy rain on Saturday. That is not materializing, giving FREE DROP BILLY a dry track to run over. That being the case -- we'll take the pace questions, trust in his beautiful stamina breeding, and make him the longshot to watch.
- BRAVAZO (8/1) - BRAVAZO is the most baffling horse in the Belmont. On his day, he's a nice horse. He has some tactical versatility. He has handled long distances on sloppy mud well. His sixth in the Derby wasn't bad, and he was closing like a freight train in the Preakness. But? The bottom side of BRAVAZO's pedigree raises serious questions for a mile and a half, and he has similar questions as Justify about whether the rigors of the Triple Crown season have taken too much out of him. Especially with the slightly depressed price expected after BRAVAZO's Preakness effort, he's one who falls in the "not impossible, I guess, but you can't use them all". Taking a pass here.
- HOFBURG (9/2) - Tapit has had a hammerlock on the Belmont Stakes, with three out of the last four Belmont winners being sons of the grey. Not only does HOFBURG have Tapit on top, but he is out of the Touch Gold mare Soothing Touch, who produced Emollient, a G1 winner at a mile and a quarter. The pedigree is there. HOFBURG is improving, with just four starts under him, and has had five weeks to rebound after a rallying and troubled seventh in the Kentucky Derby. But, he was a Wise Guy Horse coming into the Derby and he'll be even more of one coming into the Belmont. With the depressed price and the closing style, he's hard to want on top in this spot. But, for underneath rungs of exotics? You've got to use HOFBURG.
- RESTORING HOPE (30/1) - RESTORING HOPE ought to be a pace factor in the Belmont Stakes. He was unable to get the lead in the Pat Day Mile (G3) last time out, but going a mile and a half here, he ought to be plenty swift early to place himself prominently. That's the interesting part, though -- he's a stablemate to JUSTIFY in the Bob Baffert barn. Though JUSTIFY has some early speed if he wants to show it, the presence of RESTORING HOPE sounds most likely to make sure that anyone who does go (BRAVAZO? NOBLE INDY?) can't walk the dog.
- GRONKOWSKI (12/1) - Rerouted from the Derby after a hoof bruise, GRONKOWSKI instead makes his dirt debut in the Belmont. The son of Lonhro has looked good exercising over the Belmont course, a positive. But, he has not raced longer than a mile and has not tried group-level company on any surface. I'd love to see GRONKOWSKI win in the sense that he would be an amazing story, European shipper meets American mainstream sports. But, unless he turns out to be a freak on the dirt (more specifically, in the mud), I don't see it. I'm willing to take that risk.
- TENFOLD (12/1) - Stamina flows deep in TENFOLD's blood: he is by Curlin out of a Tapit mare, his second dam is by Giant's Causeway, and the family is full of horses who want a route of ground. He only has four races underneath him, but they've been good ones. In the Preakness he closed well to finish third, beaten less than a length by JUSTIFY. It was a positive to see him rally from off the pace there -- between that and his allowance victory at Oaklawn, it shows he has good tactical speed. The questions are experience as well as how much that Preakness effort took out of him. But given that he had five weeks between the Arkansas Derby and the Preakness, that isn't as much of a concern as it would be if TENFOLD had run on Derby Day too. Between his pedigree and his improving form, TENFOLD is one of the better contenders here.
- VINO ROSSO (8/1) - Leading up to the Derby I kept muttering, "not today, but talk to me again in five weeks." Here we are, five weeks later, and I still think five-weeks-ago-me was onto something. VINO ROSSO has a whiz-bang pedigree for the Belmont Stakes: he is by stamina merchant Curlin out of the Street Cry mare Mythical Bride. Mythical Bride herself is half to Commissioner -- who finished a close second in the 2014 Belmont. VINO ROSSO had plenty of excuses in the Derby: the 18-hole, the wide trip, the fact that he still made up some ground in the lane. Now VINO ROSSO has had five weeks to bounce back after the Derby, get settled in New York, and take a few spins around the Belmont track. His connections are ones you can trust here: Todd Pletcher has won three Belmont Stakes, and has gotten very good at getting Derby also-rans ready for the Belmont in five weeks. Rider John Velazquez has a pair of Belmonts to his credit, too. This all adds up to one solid upset pick -- VINO ROSSO can win the Belmont on Saturday.
- NOBLE INDY (30/1) - NOBLE INDY also hails from the Todd Pletcher barn. Though the effusive praise for Pletcher's Belmont prowess also applies to him, there's little else to love. His pedigree suggests the mile and an eighth at which he won the Louisiana Derby (G2) is his absolute ceiling. Though he has excuses other than the slop for how poorly he did in the Derby (the distance, not getting as close to the lead as he likes), his wet track pedigree is meagre enough to suggest the off track didn't help matters. Even with the blinkers off, he will likely be on or near the lead -- and though being forward in itself isn't a bad thing in the Belmont, it's hard to see him rating kindly enough with RESTORING HOPE in the field and then staying the distance. Toss.
- BLENDED CITIZEN (15/1) - BLENDED CITIZEN didn't draw into the Kentucky Derby, so he took the Peter Pan (G2) route. The Peter Pan turned out to be a great spot for him: he won, his first victory in five tries on dirt. He proved he could handle Big Sandy, and importantly, Big Sandy with some moisture in it. That's a positive since there's rain in the forecast for Belmont day. The race gave BLENDED CITIZEN's regular rider Kyle Frey a tour over the course, a positive since Frey returns to the irons here. Though BLENDED CITIZEN's pedigree isn't quite as long-winded as others in the field -- it's an amazing nine-furlong pedigree, though less awesome for twelve -- his current form and his try over the course combine to suggest he can run another honest effort. It's hard to see BLENDED CITIZEN winning, but as a longshot to use underneath? BLENDED CITIZEN could very well run on for a share.
#8 VINO ROSSO (8/1)
#1 JUSTIFY (4/5)
#7 TENFOLD (12/1)
Longshot: #2 FREE DROP BILLY (30/1)
Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Saturday's stakes races at Belmont Park. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.