If there is a Triple Crown sweep this year, it will come with an asterisk.
Never mind that it is still tough to get the job done. That Justify must overcome a longer distance and shorter rest and fresher rivals and his own greenness to win the Belmont Stakes.
It is just that Audible will not be there.
Apparently not wanting to prolong the traditionally antsy questions from us in the media or the new-age impatience of social media, Audible’s owners – the same owners as Justify – pulled the plug Friday morning on what was perceived to be the biggest threat to Justify’s Triple Crown.
It was left to trainer Todd Pletcher, a three-time winner in the Belmont, to tell reporters what CEO Elliott Walden had decided on behalf of WinStar Farm and its lead partner – the China Horse Club.
“After talking to Elliott we’ve decided that we will freshen him up and point to a summer campaign,” Pletcher said outside his barn at Belmont Park. “I don’t feel like he’s doing quite as well as he was leading into the Derby. His energy level hasn’t been quite the same. He’s not moving quite as freely.”
Trying to read between the lines this week, Pletcher did tell the Daily Racing Form on Monday that “if he’s training well, yeah, we’d like to run him.” Well, that’s a sign that something was up, right?
So Audible will chill a couple months and presumably get back to his normal self for the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga in late July, when Justify will probably be at Del Mar.
Presumably, Audible could then take shots at the Travers Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unless, of course, Justify wants those, too.
All this comes a day after ESPN reported that Justify’s breeding rights were sold to the Irish giant Coolmore for $60 million. Oh, yes. Another $25 million would be thrown in if he wins the Triple Crown.
Hmmm. $25,800,000 for one horse winning the Belmont vs. $800,000 for the other. Forgive me my cynical skepticism.
WinStar denied that any deal had been made, saying Thursday in a written statement, “We have had numerous inquiries into the breeding rights of Justify, including from Coolmore. Nothing is finalized at this time and won’t be in the foreseeable future. We are focused on the Belmont Stakes and his racing career.”
Forgive me. I am 59. I have heard it all. When I read that, my B.S. needle was pegged.
Yes, I still believe that Michael Jordan may have been punished for gambling when he went off to play baseball. But even if that is as far-fetched as Jordan claimed, the Houston Rockets still won two NBA championships without having to face him. Fair or not to Hakeem and Clyde, that is a talking point that comes up very quickly when discussing those titles.
So is it fair to Justify that if he goes out and wins the Belmont – especially if he wins in a runaway – that Audible’s absence will not be far out of mind? Just because he finished a late-charging third to Justify in the slop of the Derby, that did not guarantee that he was going to be as close in the Belmont. It is just that we will never know.
At least we do not have to wonder if this move was made to hasten an end to a 40-year Triple Crown drought. Thankfully, American Pharoah took care of that. The closest thing that Pharoah came to a watered-down field that year was the late scratch of Beholder from the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That was nothing like this.
Customers at the Wynn Las Vegas were already backing away from Audible even before Friday’s decision. Knowing that a wager on the Belmont is action without the chance for a refund, Wynn bettors left Audible to drift from opening odds of 7-1 to 8-1 before he came off the board. By comparison, Justify went from 4-5 to 21-20. That pendulum will probably swing back toward odds-on.
Other than the fatigue of two races in the slop in such a short period of time, Justify is showing no sign that he will be anything but fit for the Belmont. In is first works at Churchill Downs since last Saturday’s Preakness, he has looked raring to go.
“He had a good bounce in his step,” said Jimmy Barnes, trainer Bob Baffert’s assistant who is on the ground in Kentucky. “He seemed to really enjoy it.”
“He’s happy,” Baffert said back home at Santa Anita. “We’re all happy.”
Don’t expect Baffert to weigh in too heavily on Audible’s absence. He will say what he has to say, but otherwise he tends not to analyze other horses competing – or not competing – against his own. In this case it is even less relevant strategically since Audible is a closer that would not have factored into the early pace set-up the way Justify will.
One thing Baffert would talk about this week was the weather, which was awful for the Derby and the Preakness. Even though the rain and sloppy conditions did not prevent Justify from winning both races, Baffert harked back to 1973, when Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought with a 31-length win on a sultry day in the Belmont.
“I hope to get a track like Secretariat got,” he said.
Secretariat’s blood rival that year was Sham. He showed up for all three Triple Crown races. It’s just too bad that the 2018 version of Sham will not.
Racing notes and opinions
Before Audible was eliminated from consideration, these were the odds that Johnny Avello posted at the Wynn Las Vegas for the Belmont Stakes:
12-1 Vino Rosso
22-1 Restoring Hope
25-1 Lone Sailor
28-1 Blended Citizen
40-1 Free Drop Billy
75-1 Just Whistle
Avello also posted a yes-no prop on Justify winning the Triple Crown with the backstop that Justify must run in the Belmont to have action. Thursday afternoon it was yes 105, no –125. The “no” price had opened at 110. The Wynn also has a prop asking if both Justify will win the Triple Crown and the Vegas Golden Knights will win the 2017-18 Stanley Cup. On that Thursday it was yes 250, no –300.
Will what seems like a certain trifecta be split up Saturday in the $500,000 Grade 1 Gold Cup over 1¼ miles at Santa Anita? Coming off a victory in the April 14 Oaklawn Handicap for his third consecutive win, City Of Light (9-5) is the morning line favorite over Big ’Cap winner Accelerate (2-1) and Baffert’s 5-year-old gelding Dr. Dorr (5-2), a 7¼-length winner in the Californian Stakes. Smarty Jones winner Pavel (5-1), off the board his last four races, figures to be the shortest-priced challenger. Those four horses are expected to be on or near the lead established from the rail by Little Scotty (15-1), a gelding that is 2-for-2 on the dirt after going 5-for-25 mostly in low-level turf races. Two mid-pack horses – Californian runner-up Prince Of Arabia (12-1) and former Chilean turf specialist Full Of Luck (15-1) – complete the field of seven 4- and 5-year-olds. Accelerate is carrying 125 pounds; the rest 121.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include New York Racing Association paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale-Morley, who previews the Belmont Stakes, and NBC Sports coordinating producer Rob Hyland, who discusses televising the Preakness Stakes through the Pimlico fog. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.