I am picking Justify to win the 2018 Belmont Stakes and become the 13th Triple Crown Champ. This will be extremely popular with race fans. However, I am not out for click-bait journalism here, I truly believe this will happen. Admittedly, though, I’m going against the grain of conventional wisdom as it is a totally unwise pick from a historical betting stance.
However, I have had a feeling about this one since the Sunday evening after the Kentucky Derby — enough so that, the next day, I purchased Belmont Stakes tickets and made flight and hotel reservations in an attempt to witness to my first Triple Crown win live. Then, I called Justify the 2018 Preakness Stakes winner on my www.thederbyhandicapper.com blog.
I had a similar feeling that American Pharoah would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2015 and, in the process, become the first Grand Slam winner of American thoroughbred racing. My son and I were there at Keeneland to witness that special day and saw jockey Victor Espinosa point his whip right at us as he crossed the finish line victorious. Maybe I need to be more in touch with my feelings.
But enough with feelings, my predominate rational/pragmatic side needs facts that support my feeling that Justify will win the 2018 Belmont Stakes and become the 13th Triple Crown Champion.
History & Pedigree
In the history of horse racing, there only has been five Triple Crown contenders entering the Belmont Stakes undefeated. Here are their finishes in the Belmont Stakes:
1969 – Majestic Prince finished second (lost by 5 1/2 lengths). He had won nine straight races
1977 – Seattle Slew won (won by 4 lengths). He had won eight straight races and made it nine in New York.
2004 – Smarty Jones finished second (lost by 1 length). He had won eight straight races.
2008 – Big Brown ran ninth (did not finish). He had won five straight races.
2018 – Justify is on a five-race winning streak.
Working in Justify’s favor is that he is the great-great-great grandson of Seattle Slew on his mother’s (dam’s) side. Neither Smarty Jones nor Big Brown had Seattle Slew in their pedigree. Justify also has the ninth Triple Crown Champion — Secretariat — way back on his sire’s side for good measure.
New Shooter Theory
As many will remember, California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, was furious in a post-race interview in defeat after the 2014 Belmont Stakes due to the “new shooter” Tonalist, who won the race and ended California Chrome’s Triple Crown dreams. Coburn called it unfair to all the horses who ran in all three Triple Crown races. I am in complete agreement with Derek Simon’s recent article “Belmont Stakes: Rested Horse Rubbish.”
Your Belmont Stakes winner will most typically have raced in the Kentucky Derby. When looking at the past 25 years of Belmont Stakes winners, 17 raced in the Kentucky Derby. Only seven colts who won the Belmont Stakes were new shooters (those making their first appearance in a Triple Crown race). Only one of the winners came out of the Preakness Stakes and didn’t also race in the Kentucky Derby.
Though it may appear on paper that horses who run in the Kentucky Derby, but skip the Preakness Stakes, have a better chance at winning the Belmont Stakes, I think it is much more complex than this. Sure, I feel a couple of extra weeks rest from racing and simply breezing is probably a good thing. However, I don’t feel that with a truly great horse it is as big of an issue as most. I feel that other factors are probably more important than time between races.
Brisnet Prime Power Ratings & Trip
Looking at the Brisnet past performances for this Belmont Stakes field, Justify has Prime Power rating of 160.8, which is more than 10 over the next colt in this field –Vino Rosso 147.3. Historically, having a Prime Power rating more than 10 over the next best colt in the field equates to a 55 percent win rate.
One recent Triple Crown contender who had a marked Prime Power rating advantage over the Belmont Stakes field was California Chrome in 2014. Chrome had a Prime Power rating of 161.7 which was 10.2 higher than the next best in the field that year (Social Inclusion, 151.5).
The Belmont Stakes should have gone in California Chrome’s favor. It didn’t. My opinion is that California Chrome lost the 2014 Belmont Stakes mainly due to a bad trip. He got hemmed in behind the lead pack on the inside and then Espinoza decided to go 4-wide. Sometimes that is what happens to stalkers or inside runners who don’t get up near the front.
Early speed has performed well at Belmont Park in the recent weeks. When looking at races run on Big Sandy from April 27 to May 31, early speed types have won 61 percent of the races. And despite preconceived notions, as Noel Michaels noted in his US Racing article, Closers don’t fare too well in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. In fact, closers have only won 3 out of the last 17 Belmont Stakes races.
Stalkers do well in the Belmont Stakes, but as noted earlier, such a style backfired for California Chrome. Justify, by Brisnet running style definition, is classified as an “E/P” (early speed/presser). A horse who will take the early lead or run second or third within a few lengths of race leader. Justify is the best early speed type in this Belmont Stakes field and he breaks well out of the gate. It is very unlikely that Justify will lose the Belmont Stakes due to a bad trip or post-position draw. Justify is going to have to be beaten, fair and square. And from the “dreaded rail” (#1 post-position) which — surprise, surprise — has produced the most Belmont Stakes winners (23).
Track Condition & Speed Figures
It is worth noting that Justify’s speed figures have declined in each of his two starts since the Santa Anita Derby. This naturally set off a few alarms with handicappers — and deservedly so. However, my feeling is that this has more to do with track conditions than anything else. American Pharoah’s speed figures on wet tracks were lower in comparison to his figures on dry, fast tracks during his 3-year-old campaign. In fact, two of his worst speed figures were the “muddy” Rebel and “sloppy” Preakness Stakes. But just like American Pharoah, Justify squeezed out wins in these adverse track conditions. The truly great ones usually do.
Justify is a much better fast-track runner. I feel that all he really needs is a fast track to, once again, widen the gap between the field. From my experience, sloppy or muddy track conditions even up the field and, sometimes, you will see the slowest horses hit the board in these conditions.
For those who prefer Beyer speed figures, Justify’s worst BSF is a 97, which he earned in the Preakness Stakes. Vino Rosso is the only colt in the Belmont field to have eclipsed that Beyer Speed Figure with a 98 earned in the Wood Memorial. Justify received a 107 Beyer in his pre-Derby prep race, the Santa Anita Derby.
Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith have both won two Belmont Stakes races independently. Plus, Bob Baffert has won a Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015. So, there is nothing to nitpick here. Tried-and-true experience and a Hall-of-Fame-caliber trainer and jockey is what you prefer to have in your corner.
The Racing Gods
As I noted in a previous US Racing article “Triple Crown Fever: Why Justify Could Become The 13th Triple Crown Champion,” Triple Crown Champions come in bunches. Since the very first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919, 22 years passed before we saw the next run of Triple Crown winners in the 1930s with Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937). Then another run in the 1940s: Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948).
Then there was a gap of 25 years before we saw the next run in the great run during the 1970s: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
See the pattern here? Starting in 1930, once a Triple Crown Champion is crowned, two more are crowned roughly every two to three years. Then a new cycle begins with varying time intervals.
In 2015, American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown draught. Race fans, I feel that we are overdue again.
No fence-straddling here, I’m a believer that Justify will pull this off. After Justify broke the 136-year-old “Curse of Apollo” in the Kentucky Derby, I have been a believer in this physically imposing chestnut colt. He certainly looks the part of a Triple Crown champion.
I’m betting Justify to win.