Our horse whisperer John Valter returns for the final leg of the Triple Crown with a breakdown of every horse in the field for this week’s Belmont Stakes betting preview:
1 – Justify – Draws the rail for his attempt to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. He’ll be a deserving massive favorite who’s done nothing wrong in his short racing career. Was far more challenged in Baltimore than Louisville, which does raise questions. Three hard races in five weeks is a lot to ask, but if any trainer knows what it takes, it’s Bob Baffert, who finally cracked the code in 2015 with American Pharaoh. Seems to possess the exact running style that commonly wins this race. Is he bred to get the 1.5 mile distance — various pedigree experts seem to disagree on this issue, but it’s never really a settled question until they actually run the race. Drawing the rail offers a minor disadvantage, as he now seems forced to scramble for the lead, rather than taking the option of seeing how the pace works out. Justify is the one to beat almost assuredly, but will offer little value at the windows other than for souvenir purposes.
2 – Free Drop Billy – Has lost five straight since his G1 score as a 2-year-old in Breeders’ Futurity. Didn’t appear to want any part of the slop in the Derby, and didn’t relish the distance, either. Has pointed for this one ever since, and has posted some nice numbers in the morning. His daddy, Union Rags won this race in 2012, so there’s that angle. Still, I don’t see him reversing his recent fortunes against this level of competition, and don’t like his chances at all.
3 – Bravazo – Outran his odds in the Derby to finish 6th, and then took an even bigger step forward with a runner-up finish in the Preakness, closing 4.5 lengths on Justify in the final furlong. It was an impressive performance, and he even showed some nice ability to rate, unlike the Derby where it was pretty much a strict closing move. The main question here is whether he can turn the tables on Justify, while making his 3rd demanding start in five weeks. The pedigree suggests that the distance shouldn’t be a problem, and he had a very impressive mile workout on May 31st that suggests fitness shouldn’t be an issue, either. His chances to upset cannot be discounted.
4 – Hofburg – The second choice in the morning line, like a few others in here, he enters off his last race in the Kentucky Derby, a seventh-place finish that I feel is being vastly overrated by many. Yes, he endured a ton of trouble early on, and yes he passed a lot of horses in the stretch once he finally got clear, eventually finishing 9 lengths behind the winner. And yes, Bill Mott knows how to win the Belmont. However, the long and short of it is that he’s going to offer very little betting value relative to his actual chance to win the race. I think his Derby was just a matter of him passing a bunch of tired horses; there are a number of horses that fit his profile (that of a deep closer passing a lot of horses in Louisville and then skipping the Preakness) that have flopped miserably in New York. He may turn out to be a very nice horse, but I’m willing to let him beat me here.
5 – Restoring Hope – Also from the Baffert barn, appears to be entered as some sort of rabbit for Justify, though that may be a moot point after Justify drew the rail. Was walloped as the favorite in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard. Little to recommend off that one, but it is likely that he will run close to the early pace, and if the fractions are slow, it’s not unreasonable to think that he might be able to hang around for a piece of the exotics case. Worth a flyer on deeper tickets.
6 – Gronkowski – Named for the popular New England Patriots tight end, he’s likely to attract a good bit of money on his name alone. Brings a four-race win streak into this one, but he’s never gone beyond a mile, and he’ll be making his dirt debut in this one, as well. Significant questions about his breeding for both distance and surface are very real. I have great respect for his trainer Chad Brown, who seems very optimistic about his chances, but given that he’s likely to be massively overbet relative to his actual chances, I will be taking a strong pass.
7 – Tenfold – If you follow my selections during the Triple Crown, you may recall that I loved this guy’s chances in the Preakness, and he delivered a 3rd place finish, where he looked like a possible winner in mid-stretch. That said, he could never pass Justify, and then got passed himself near the wire by Bravazo. I still think he’s going to win a big race this year, but I’m not confident it’s going to be this Saturday. He pretty much got a dream setup in Baltimore, and it’s quite disappointing he didn’t hold on for second. I still think he’s likely to be in the mix for the money, but I don’t like his chances to finish on top. I do note that should the track come up wet, his chances would be enhanced, significantly.
8 – Vino Rosso – Well, hello there, my old friend. This guy was my Derby selection, but he didn’t come through for me, finishing 9th. He didn’t have a great trip that day, but it wasn’t really that troubled either – it was just very wide. Relative to that trip, it’s worth noting that he finished less than two lengths behind Hofburg, but actually traveled four lengths more. Getting a good trip is the key to his chances here, as I have very little question about a pedigree that suggests he can run all day. Todd Pletcher has had a ton of success in the Belmont over the last twelve years, with three winners, and eight others finishing in the top three. My math tells me that makes him responsible for a little less than a third of the trifecta finishers since 2006; that’s a strong record. As noted, it’s all about the trip; if he runs back to his Wood Memorial, he has a strong chance to spoil Justify’s Triple Crown bid.
9 – Noble Indy – Another Pletcher charge, he was a disappointing 17th in the Kentucky Derby. Wasn’t particularly crazy about his chances in that one, and feel much the same here. Is likely slower than the best of these, though I offer the same advisement as with Restoring Hope; he’s likely to be running close to the pace, and can be used on exotic tickets exploring the angle of a very slow pace.
10 – Blended Citizen – Comes in off a win in the Peter Pan over this track utilizing a stalking running style that would be very effective in this spot. Earlier in the year, won the Spiral Stakes over a synthetic surface, then was 5th in the Bluegrass, a race that looks better than it did at the time. He’s probably the horse that is going to offer the best value of anybody on the board. The main question is, is he fast enough? The 90 Beyer he earned in the Peter Pan suggests maybe not, and he may have trouble tracking Justify in the early going. That said, if there is one race on the American calendar where speed ratings and the like may cease to be relevant, it’s the Belmont. It’s all about the trip, baby, and I love this guy’s chance to be right in the mix at the very end. Big chance at big odds.
I’m not as confident in Justify’s chances as I was in Maryland, but I still think he’s a definitive notch above these at his best. However, the Belmont Stakes have been the downfall of many greats in the past, and Justify will offer no wagering value. I will take a stab against here, and head back to the well with my Derby pick — though I don’t have great confidence in doing so, and won’t be sad if Justify etched his name in immortality.
1) Vino Rosso, 2) Justify, 3) Blended Citizen, 4) Bravazo