Elmont, New York
Another track. Another gallop. For Justify, they have been as routine as lather, rinse, repeat.
“It looked like he really took to the track really well,” trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday morning after Justify had his first gallop over the dirt at Belmont Park. “All my horses I brought up here, they just floated over this track.”
With the exception of a bruised heel the day after he won the Kentucky Derby, Justify has had that kind of drama-free spring.
Well, there was the rotten weather for the Derby and the Preakness, and the National Weather Service says there is a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. But considering the fact that Justify’s Triple Crown résumé has been built on sloppy-track wins, his connections would be excused for thinking a wet day was just another sign that things are normal.
“Everywhere he’s gone it’s just like he’s been there before.” Baffert said. “He went out to the track today, and he went around like he’s been here. He’s just a very intelligent horse.”
So intelligent that Baffert is not even going to school Justify in the paddock – or in the starting gate, where he drew the rail for Saturday’s race.
“He’ll probably get schooled in the ‘1’ hole sitting there for a long time,” Baffert said – deadpan, of course. “So we’re not going to stand him.”
Justify’s 1 3/8-mile turn on the dry, main track was expected to be more of a jog, maybe a light gallop. But when he flashed past the grandstand just before 8 a.m. EDT, exercise rider Humberto Gómez had him in a full gallop.
“A horse came up to him,” Baffert said. “Usually we have earplugs. I didn’t put the earplugs in him today. I thought it would be really quiet out there. We’re going to put the earplugs in him tomorrow.”
A-ha. A flicker of drama, right? Umm, no.
“It was nothing for him,” Baffert said. “He was a little fresh. He worked Monday, he walked Tuesday, and he shipped yesterday. But he looked great at the barn. I couldn’t be happier.”
With his trouble-free week, Justify (4-5) continues to offer no reason why he should not be the morning-line favorite, Hofburg (9-2) has been forecast to be bet down to a second choice, especially after his impressive close from 13th to seventh in the stretch at the Kentucky Derby, where he made up 8¼ lengths from a troubled trip.
His trainer Bill Mott is aware of Belmont Stakes history. In other words, he knows Hofburg cannot get away with being very far back this time.
“You’d like to be within two, three lengths at the quarter pole,” Mott said. “I’ve been observing a lot of these marathons on dirt, and I don’t think you want to be a dozen lengths off the lead turning for home.”
One colt that figures to get betting attention if only because of his name is Gronkowski (12-1), even if not so much as a single dollar comes from a serious horseplayer.
“No one expects this horse to win,” said trainer Chad Brown, who sent the British transplant out for a 1½-mile gallop Thursday morning. Brown conceded that “it’s less pressure” having a long shot that has never raced past a mile or on American dirt. But he also said, “I feel like he has a legitimate chance.”
The most eventful thing that has happened this week for anyone associated with race happened to the trainer of Free Drop Billy (30-1). Dale Romans gave the Heimlich maneuver to a young woman Tuesday night, rescuing her after she choked on her food at the Mets game.
“You could tell she was in distress,” Romans said. “I grabbed her and (after) two or three pops, she got rid of what was in her throat, got up and she was fine. Maybe I get a little divine intervention Saturday.”
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Belmont Stakes week at VSiN.com. You may also hear separate editions of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod today and Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. Wednesday’s pop-up podcast featured handicappers Dave Tuley, Vinny Magliulo and Patrick McQuiggan analyzing each of the 10 horses in the Belmont Stakes field. Guests on Friday’s podcast include Todd Pletcher, trainer of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, and Britney Eurton, NBC and TVG racing analyst. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.