It hardly seems like three years since the world witnessed American Pharoah capture the first Triple Crown in 37 years, but here we are back again with Justify and his attempt to become the 13th horse in history to win all three jewels – the Kentucky Derby (GI), Preakness Stakes (GI) and now the Belmont Stakes. This year marks the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the three races and one of the longest at its 12-furlong distance.
The Belmont Stakes is known for a lot of things, from being the crowning glory of a grueling five-week race series to a crushing spoiler for runners and their connections attempting to earn racing immortality with a Triple Crown. But of all the things the Belmont Stakes is known for it’s probably the sheer amount of amazing horses who’ve won the 1 ½-mile race since it was first contested in 1867.
In addition to the 12 Triple Crown winners, a host of historic names have graced the Belmont Stakes winner’s circle draped in the blanket of carnations. Sometimes the term “legends of the turf” is used too loosely, but it seems almost an understatement when it comes to the Belmont Stakes. It has been the stop for all of the great racing legends, from Belair Stud, Sam Riddle and Greentree Stable to the greats, “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons and Woody Stephens. Back in the day winning the Belmont was as important – if not more so – than any other race.
Some names even the casual racing fan will recognize as third-jewel winners, in addition to the 12 Triple Crown winners, include Spendthrift, Peter Pan, Colin, Native Dancer, Nashua, Needles, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Riva Ridge, Conquistador Cielo, Swale, Bet Twice, Risen Star, Easy Goer, A.P. Indy, Colonial Affair, Point Given and Empire Maker. Fillies have won three times with Rags to Riches being the last in 2007, and nine foreign-bred horses have taken to the track known as “Big Sandy” on the Saturday three weeks after the Preakness Stakes to win the big race.
This year a field of 10 will race the entire circumference of Belmont with their hopeful connections looking to add their names to the annals of history, one very special one in pursuit of the most distinguished honor in American racing.
The weather in the New York area on Saturday is expected to be on the warmer side, with highs in the upper 70s. There isn’t expected to be a rain cloud in sight, though skies may be partly cloud, so a fast track and firm turf is on tap for the 13-race card. The Belmont Stakes has been carded as the 11th on the day with a post time of 6:46 p.m. ET. Network coverage on NBC Sports begins at 4:00 p.m. ET with undercard races and commentary on NBC Sports Network starting at 2:00 p.m. ET.
Here are some pros and cons for all the Belmont Stakes runners, in post position order:
Dual classic winner Justify will lead the field to post in search of racing immortality and despite the fact this distance is literally run once a year (well, close enough), the inside post is never ideal, especially for a speed horse like he is. But Justify has overcome just about every obstacle in his undefeated five-race career with relative ease, from being behind most of his rivals in experience, to weather and off tracks, so it’s safe to say he’ll be able to handle the inconvenience of the inside under Mike Smith, who is a Hall of Famer and who also used to be a regular rider at Belmont and knows how to ride the wide, sweeping Belmont Park track. Justify has the best speed figures overall, though his last was a bit of a regression in the Preaknes, but he’s more than capable of defeating this field even if he has a slightly off day. Trainer Bob Baffert has been here before and knows how to win the Triple Crown so it may just be a matter of trip. His speed is his weapon and he’s going to use it, though some may go with him early perhaps to their detriment. If Smith can rein in Justify’s energy a bit early, he will be very tough to beat. Frontrunners win the Belmont Stakes more than any other, and this flashy son of Scat Daddy looks solid to be the next one.
Free Drop Billy hasn’t won a race in more than six months, but qualified for the Derby with placings in a couple of races on the Triple Crown trail. His Derby finish was an uninspiring 16th place with not much of an excuse, but trainer Dale Romans thinks the distance and makeup of the Belmont is what this colt will benefit from. He’s been training great at Churchill since the Derby and is a son of a Belmont winner so distance shouldn’t be an issue, but overall he’ll need the race of his life to beat the top choice, though he will like the speed in front of him.
Bravazo was a bit of a surprising second in the Preakness after stalking the early pace and rallying wide on a drier part of the boggy Pimlico track on the turn and into the lane. He’s trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has two winners in this race, and if he runs back to that form – which so far is about as close to his career best – he’s probably one of the most likely candidates to upset the favorite. He’s another bred sufficiently for this 12-furlong distance.
Hofburg’s seventh-place finish in the Derby was skeaky good in that it was troubled and he still ran strongly down the lane. Did his trouble make the difference between the win and nearly nine lengths back? Hard to say, but his second in the Florida Derby (GI) was really good and earned him a big 104 BRISnet speed figure. He was the “wise guy” horse heading into the Run For the Roses and but for a different chestnut named Justify might be a favorite here. He’s been training exceptionally well for trainer Bill Mott over the Saratoga training track and while he is loaded with potential and promise, everything for him must go right and something for the favorite must go wrong if he’s going to earn the win.
Restoring Hope is the “other Baffert” who will likely stay the “other Baffert” and not pull any kind of upset. He seems grossly overmatched here.
Gronkowski was a useful horses in second-tier races in Europe, with his human counterpart, New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, purchasing an interest in him when he qualified for the Derby starting gate. A minor illness kept him out of the Derby gate, but he’s been training well and reportedly looking great in New York for a couple weeks. He will take more money than he deserves thanks to his celebrity connections, but he’d need to improve a lot to run with Justify and some of the better choices to finish closer to the top.
Tenfold was right behind Bravazo and Justify in the Preakness in what was his best effort yet. He is improving with each start, which will help him here, and as a son of trainer Steve Asmussen’s 2007 Belmont runner-up, should enjoy the stretchout. He should get a stalking trip under Ricardo Santana Jr. but Mike Smith will probably be more ready for Tenfold’s stretch challenge than he was in the Preakness. If he improves, he’s a good bet for all exotics tickets.
Vino Rosso is one of trainer Todd Pletcher and Repole Stable’s two Belmont runners, with St. Elias Stable owning a piece, making their first starts since disappointing finishes in the Kentucky Derby. That race was by far the worst for this Wood Memorial Stakes (GII) winner, as he’d won three of his five starts before that race. He has the capability to log triple-digit figures and has a nice half-mile work over this surface, which is known to be deep and sandy. Vino Rosso’s best makes him one who should be considered for the top three finish positions.
Noble Indy is the other Pletcher/Repole runner, in partnership with WinStar Farm. Though he won the Louisiana Derby, the race proved to be flat when producing legitimate Triple Crown contenders. He worked in company with his stablemate in that nice half-mile here, but he will need the race of his life to be competitive for a larger piece.
Jeff Ruby Steaks (GIII) winner Blended Citizen is back after winning the soft-ish Peter Pan Stakes (GIII) over this Belmont Park main track a month ago. He’s been training well and looking exceptionally happy, which will help him. He’s a consistent type overall and his best could mean a larger share of the purse with his patented mid-pack trip. The distance shouldn’t be any more of an issue for him than any of his rivals.