Were you thinking what I was thinking at the end of Justify’s victory in the Preakness Stakes? His trainer Bob Baffert admitted that he was.
“I was like everybody else after I saw that race,” he said. “I thought, well, maybe this is it. We’re getting to the bottom of this horse. He’s starting to react to all these races.”
But with a Triple Crown bid at hand in next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Baffert said that jockey Mike Smith’s post-race assessment continues to resonate with him.
“Mike said he was cruising home,” Baffert said in an interview with VSiN at Santa Anita. “He never did see that horse (Bravazo) on the way outside coming until he passed the wire. He said there was more there. I felt good about that after talking to Mike.”
For bettors, then, it comes down to the eyes vs. the ears. Do you believe what you saw at the end of the Preakness and figure that Justify will not last the extra 550 yards of the Belmont – a feeling burnished by dwindling speed figures? Or do you believe what Baffert and Smith are saying – that the Preakness may have been Justify’s “bounce” race?
“I’m not seeing it that way,” said Johnny Avello, the respected race-book director at the Wynn Las Vegas. “I don’t think there was much in the tank at the end of the race. It didn’t look that way. That doesn’t mean he can’t go on and win the Belmont. I still believe in the Preakness that (Smith) used a lot of horse to hold off Bravazo.”
Avello still makes Justify an 11-10 favorite to win the Belmont and complete the Triple Crown – and 10-13 that he does not.
“The sophisticated players have been betting against Justify to win the Triple Crown,” Avello said. “Anything could happen. If you make the wager now and he doesn’t run, you don’t get your money back. That’s the way it has to be, because if I set the odds and Justify doesn’t run, and you know he’s not going to run, you can certainly bet a couple other horses and get a much more favorable price.”
As he was at the Kentucky Derby, Hofburg is the buzz horse for the Belmont. After finishing a troubled but late-gaining seventh at Churchill Downs, the lightly raced Florida Derby runner-up has shortened from opening odds of 12-1 down to 6-1.
“We have a lot of respect for Justify, and he’s the horse to beat,” Hofburg’s trainer Bill Mott said. “But we can’t let him go around there by himself. We think we’ve got a good horse. We feel like he fits the profile of a horse that could be competitive in the Belmont. He has plenty of stamina, and he keeps coming. We skipped the Preakness, so we hope he’s fresh and ready to go.”
Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, well rested after a wide-running ninth in the Derby for three-time Belmont-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, is also gathering some wise-guy steam and has shortened from 11-1 to 6-1. After his late charge to finish second in the Preakness, Bravazo is a steady fourth choice at 7-1. Tenfold comes back from finishing third in the Preakness to be 12-1 for the Belmont.
Avello said he is reluctant to pick one horse that he believes will beat Justify and win the Belmont. “If you’ve been looking at my odds,” he said, “I’ve had horses in, out. One day this horse is out. The next day this horse is in. We’ll see if there’s going to be any new blood for the race.”
Headed into his fifth trip to the Belmont with a live chance for the Triple Crown, Baffert agreed that this group of 3-year-olds is more accomplished than the group that challenged American Pharoah on his way to the drought-ending sweep three years ago.
“This is a tough crop,” he said. “It’s probably the deepest I’ve seen, and everybody keeps waiting for (Justify) to win by 10. These are good horses. It’s not possible.”
Then again, Justify fired an eye-catching bullet with a Tuesday workout at Churchill Downs, clocked at 46 4/5 seconds for a half-mile with a gallop out to five furlongs in 59 4/5.
“He shipped back to Kentucky, and everything’s been really positive,” Baffert said. “He’s been running himself into shape. He’s an elite athlete. I think he really knows that he’s really that good. He’s got that attitude about him.”
(The full interview with Baffert may be heard on the latest Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted at VSiN.com/podcasts.)
Racing notes and opinions
Which horse is the best 3-year-old in the world? Justify is staking his claim, but so is another undefeated albeit lightly raced colt. Saxon Warrior (11-10), trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore, will be the heavy favorite in England at 11:30 a.m. EDT Saturday for the 239th running of the $1.13 million Group 1 Investec Derby over 1½ miles on the turf at Epsom. Sired by Deep Impact out of a Galileo broodmare, the winner of last month’s 2000 Guineas is 4-for-4, each at a mile on ground ranging from good to yielding. Young Rascal (8-1) has shown the ability to stay the distance, but this is his first group race for trainer William Haggas. The Aga Khan colt Hazapour (9-1) and the California-bred Roaring Lion (9-1) come in off group wins at 1¼ miles. With two days of rain before race day, the course is expected to be soft.
Unique Bella (3-5 on the morning line) and Paradise Woods (2-1) are expected to set the pace with Vale Dori (4-1) chasing them at 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday in the $400,000 Grade 1 Beholder Mile on Santa Anita’s main track. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and ridden by Smith, Unique Bella is 6-for-7 at Santa Anita, where she drew wide in the field of six. She is coming off a second-place finish to Unbridled Mo in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Trained by Richard Mandella, Paradise Woods lost to Unique Bella in the La Brea on Dec. 26 and finished fourth 2½ months ago in the Santa Monica Stakes. Vale Dori is coming off a fifth-place finish in a Grade 3 race last month at Santa Anita, her first race after Baffert gave her a nine-month layoff. The value play is the mid-pack runner Mopotism (15-1), returning to the dirt and cutting back from nine furlongs for Doug O’Neill.
After wearing the white silks with the green star of WinStar Farm while riding Justify in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Smith will wear the red colors with gold stars of the China Horse Club in the Belmont Stakes. The two major owners are in a rotation with the China Horse Club silks coming up every fourth race after they alternated the first two. If Justify were to follow the American Pharoah trail and race in the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Smith would be back in WinStar white for all three. Got all that?
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and will appear daily from the Belmont Stakes in New York starting Tuesday. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts in addition to next Wednesday’s pop-up to handicap the Belmont. Guests this week include Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who discusses Justify’s bid to win him a second Triple Crown, and CBS Sports Radio morning host Marc Malusis, a New York-based horseplayer who provides his thoughts about Justify and the rest of the Belmont Stakes field. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.