Elmont, New York
Bob Baffert may feel at home operating out of John Terranova’s barn here at Belmont Park. But even as he tries to have Justify retrace American Pharoah’s Triple Crown steps, the reality is that trainer Todd Pletcher has the home-court advantage around here.
“You get a good race at Churchill, and I think it’s an advantage to come in here,” Pletcher said this week as he was preparing Vino Rosso and Noble Indy to try and get him his fourth victory in the Belmont Stakes – and spoil Justify’s party.
It’s a tried and true formula for Pletcher. It could even be said that he uses the Kentucky Derby as a prep for the Belmont. Except for a technicality, that is the plan that he has followed all three times he has won the biggest race on his home court.
Rags To Riches raced the day before the Derby, winning the Kentucky Oaks before she delivered 36 days later in the 2007 Belmont. Palace Malice finished 12th in the Derby before winning here in 2013. Then came last year, when Tapwrit came in sixth at Churchill Downs before winning the Belmont. And they all skipped the Preakness, coming back for the “Test of the Champion” fresh off five weeks headquartered in Pletcher’s Barn 31.
With Justify (4-5) and Hofburg (9-2) the top two on the morning line, Vino Rosso (8-1) and Preakness runner-up Bravazo (8-1) are next with odds not far from where they were being bet in Las Vegas futures. Although jockey John Velázquez could not coax Vino Rosso into his usual closing burst in the Derby slop, Pletcher was encouraged by the steadiness of that ninth-place trip.
“We never really felt like he fired at all, and yet he was beaten less than 10 lengths,” Pletcher said. “He just kind of stayed on. He kept at a steady pace. That’s the kind of galloping stride that you need to find – that rhythm – in the Belmont. We’ve always felt like this was the race that he was best suited for.”
Pletcher did admit that Vino Rosso has to be nearer to the midway lead than he was when he won the Wood Memorial, simply because there is not enough home stretch to make up ground in the Belmont. “We’d like to see him laying right off the main pace-setters,” he said.
After winning the Louisiana Derby, Noble Indy (30-1) fired a dud in the Derby, finishing 17th under Florent Geroux. Pletcher has switched jockeys, turning to four-time Eclipse winner Javier Castellano. And he has taken the blinkers off, something he did successfully five years ago with Palace Malice.
“His two works since the Derby, one was without (blinkers) and one was with,” Pletcher said. “We felt like that the breeze was a little better without, and going a mile-and-a-half we just it wasn’t important to have them.”
If there is a plan for Noble Indy to deliver the long-shot upset, it is to have him near the early pace set by the Baffert colts. Yes, colts. Maiden winner Restoring Hope (30-1) may be sent out to give Justify an early focal point.
“He’s a horse that broke his maiden sprinting and showed speed when he won the Louisiana Derby,” Pletcher said. “From post 19 he never really got a great opportunity in the Derby to find himself into a great spot. We want to come out, establish some position and get into a comfortable rhythm.”
With 24 horses in 14 of the last 18 Belmonts, Pletcher has hit the board 11 times, finding himself on either side of the balance of luck. He said Saturday’s renewal will be no exception.
“To have a chance we need the campaign to sort of catch up to Justify and maybe have him not run his best race,” Pletcher said. “But so far he’s been able to do that every time. I think it’s a tall order for the rest of the field to beat him. But this is the ultimate test, so we’re hoping that we can upset the apple cart.”
The weather will apparently come up dry Saturday for the only time during this Triple Crown. The National Weather Service said it will be partly sunny with a high near 79 and northeast wind around 6 mph becoming southeast in the afternoon.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Belmont Stakes week at VSiN.com. You may hear the latest edition of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod that was posted Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. Trainer Todd Pletcher and NBC/TVG racing analyst Britney Eurton are the guests. Wednesday’s pop-up podcast featuring handicappers Dave Tuley, Vinny Magliulo and Patrick McQuiggan, all focused on analyzing each of the 10 horses in the Belmont field, is also still available. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.