After the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G2) are in the books, New York’s Belmont Park is ready to become the center of the racing universe thanks to the running of the third jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. This is especially true in years when there is a Triple Crown on the line, and that’s a big deal because this year’s Crown aspirant, Justify, appears to have a better than average chance to accomplish the feat than most of the recent losers who have come before him.
All eyes in the horse racing world – and sports world – will be on Justify, the impressive winner of the Kentucky Derby and the much less impressive winner of the Preakness. Will Justify succeed where so many others not named American Pharoah have failed and become Thoroughbred racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner? Or will he go down in defeat trying to accomplish one of the rarest and most difficult feats in all of sports?
Of all the factors that are likely to derail Justify, the biggest hurdle against his success appears to be the grind of running three races in five weeks that all Triple Crown aspirants must overcome. Belmont Stakes hopefuls who ran in both the Derby and Preakness always face a field of fresher horses.
The Triple Crown grind is likely to hit Justify even more harshly than the average hopeful. Sure, Justify broke the curse of Apollo, winning the Kentucky Derby after not having raced as a two year old, but that lack of prior experience still has a chance to catch up to him. The Belmont Stakes will be Justify’s sixth race in the span of 16 short weeks after never racing as a juvenile. The Belmont is likely to be the race that finally puts Justify over the edge.
The grind has already begun to take its toll on Justify, hasn’t it?
After a monster effort in the Kentucky Derby, Justify sputtered in the Preakness, earning the lowest Beyer speed figure in the Preakness (97) since Beyers were first published in 1991. Now Justify will be asked to go 1 1/2 miles against a field of mostly fresher horses while trying to buck a trend of regression that already began for him at Pimlico.
A field of fresher horses – even if they are inferior to him – combined with the Belmont’s distance of 1 ½ miles, undoubtedly gives you the number one reason to believe Justify will lose the Belmont. The grind factor combined with the distance has been to blame for most of the recent Belmont Stakes disappointments. Triple Crown losers, including Charismatic (Lemon Drop Kid), Funny Cide (Empire Maker), Smarty Jones (Birdstone), and California Chrome (Tonalist) all lost to fresher horses.
Of Justify’s nine challengers, Preakness runner-up Bravazo will be the only horse in the Belmont Stakes field that will be running in all three Triple Crown races, a distinct disadvantage to both horses according to recent history.
In the Belmont Stakes, in terms of the odds, it goes without saying that favorites have done poorly in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. After all, only American Pharoah has swept the Triple Crown since 1978, and for the one horse that was successful during that stretch, 12 horses were unsuccessful and lost losing their historic bids in the Belmont Stakes.
The 12 horses since 1979 to lose the Belmont in their bid for the Triple Crown were; Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008), and California Chrome (2014). Another candidate, I’ll Have Another, in 2012, was scratched before the race and never even made it into the starting gate at Belmont.
That list of 12 Belmont Stakes losers is an impressive bunch, but perhaps no horse among those 12 (with the possible exception of Spectacular Bid, who lost in large part to jockey error on the part of Ronny Franklin) has come up to the third jewel in racing’s Triple Crown looking like as much of a forgone conclusion, and looking quite so invincible, as Big Brown did in 2008. Other Triple Crown aspirants have come into the Belmont Stakes undefeated before suffering their first loss (Smarty Jones, for example), but none lost with as much flair as Big Brown, who failed to even finish the race, going down in flames at odds of 30 cents on the dollar.
What this means is that no matter how good a favorite looks in the Belmont Stakes, it is still worthwhile – from a handicapping and wagering standpoint – to bet against a Triple Crown hopeful, even if you are rooting for the horse. The opposite of the chalk-loving Preakness, the Belmont truly is a graveyard for favorites of all shapes and sizes.
In Justify’s favor, he is trained by Bob Baffert, winner of five Kentucky Derbies, seven Preaknesses, and two Belmont Stakes, including the Triple Crown victory in 2015 with American Pharoah.
But the question with Justify will not be his training or his ability. The question on Belmont Stakes Day will be if can Justify succeed where others have failed in “The Test of the Champions”?
Can Justify possibly have enough left in the tank to do it one more time?
Can he handle the marathon 1 ½ mile distance of the Belmont Stakes after two big efforts back-to-back and two weeks apart in the Derby and Preakness and remain undefeated?
Or will the Triple Crown grind of three races in five weeks, in conjunction with the 1 ½ mile distance, turn out to be his downfall?
One thing is for sure, Justify will need to be a truly exceptional horse in order to win.
Will he be up to the challenge? Probably not.