Elmont, New York
If pace makes the race, then a lack of pace made a Triple Crown.
“I was just watching the clock the whole way around there,” Bob Baffert said. “I knew the clock was going to be my friend or my enemy.”
It was his friend all right. The Hall of Fame trainer who ended a 37-year drought in 2015 with American Pharoah turned in an encore Saturday with Justify that felt strangely routine and free of any drama.
And for the most part – it happened slowly.
Justify (4-5) led by at least 1½ lengths at every call on the way to a 1¾-length win in the Belmont Stakes, making him the second undefeated Triple Crown winner after Seattle Slew in 1977.
The story unfolded slowly over the 1½ miles of main track on a sultry day that was in every way different from the rain-drenched slop fests that were last month’s Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Even the reaction of the 90,327 fans here at Belmont Park was muted by comparison to the unending din that greeted Pharoah’s victory. Maybe it was because they had been there and done that. Maybe it was because Justify has appeared on the racing scene like a comet, making his debut only 111 days before the Belmont. And maybe it was just because no horse challenged him Saturday.
“There was no pace, and nobody put any pressure on (Justify),” said Bill Mott, who trained Hofburg (5-1) to a third-place finish in the colt’s fifth career race. “He kind of walked the dog going around there. They were going slow, and (Hofburg’s jockey Írad Ortiz Jr.) didn’t want to make some crazy move going down the back side to go join him. That probably wouldn’t have made any sense.”
Not for a mid-pack horse like Hofburg. But what about a long shot like Gronkowski (24-1)? Known to chase the pace in Europe, the mysterious transfer to Chad Brown’s barn made his U.S. and dirt debuts by dawdling in the starting gate. After blowing bubbles and realizing the race had started, Gronkowski fell 14¾ lengths behind before José Ortiz, who won last year on Tapwrit, rallied him to finish an impressive second in what was his first race longer than a mile.
“He ran a great race, but the break really hurt him,” Brown said. “The pace hurt him, and he still showed up.” Showing up, in fact, to ruin more than a few exacta, trifecta and Superfecta tickets.
Vino Rosso (7-1) normally comes from off the pace, and he never got closer than two lengths to Justify, eventually fading to finish fourth, missing third by a neck.
“I made a premature run to see if I could get there,” said Vino Rosso’s jockey John Velázquez, who was looking to win the race for a second time with trainer Todd Pletcher. “It wasn’t enough.”
There was the thought that the other Pletcher horse – Noble Indy (23-1) – was going to be Vino Rosso’s rabbit and maybe an early pace challenge to Justify. But he was never better than fourth on his way to finishing last.
“Noble Indy didn’t behave great in the paddock,” Pletcher said. “He got a little bit anxious in the post parade, but none of the race went as we wanted it to go. He didn’t break great. He broke out a little bit, and basically Javier (Castellano) decided he was going to something different than we set out to do, and the horse didn’t respond very well.”
That was certainly not the case for Smith, 52, who reached a new pinnacle in his career with Saturday’s paean to efficiency. He opened with an honest 23.37-second first quarter-mile. After that he slowed everything down with fractions of 48.11, 1:13.21 and 1:38.09 through the first mile. He finished in 2:28.18, the 21st-fastest of the 1½-mile era that began in 1926 but nearly 21 lengths off Secretariat’s world record for the distance in 1973.
Smith waited for company, but it never really approached the big, 1,300-pound chestnut with an engine capacity that was not exactly tested to the nth degree Saturday.
“I knew Restoring Hope was to my outside there for a little bit, and then someone else (Vino Rosso) came at me, but I was just trying to do things that were coming easy to him,” Smith said. “I went ahead and let him move a little bit just to open it up so that everyone would move as well and chase me. By the time they’d get to me I’d be able to give him a breather, then I’d move again, and he’d move again.”
Smith for the longest time resisted the urge to use the whip, finally using the right hand to get a little bit more out of Justify once they got into the homestretch.
“I talked to Mike the other night,” Baffert said, “and I said, ‘I just hope when you turn for home you’re just sitting on him. If you’re hitting him at the top of the stretch I know we’re in deep water.’”
Smith then interrupted Baffert to say, “I swear I thought of that, too. I did. I said Bob is telling me right now, ‘Don’t go to that whip yet, just keep hand-riding.’ I know that’s what he’s saying, and then he’s telling me, ‘Now! Would you just do it now?’”
Although Smith was wearing the red-and-gold silks of China Horse Club, it was Elliott Walden, CEO of managing partner WinStar Farm, who said the future for Justify has yet to be determined.
“Six races since February,” Walden said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when he gets a little break here and we come back in the late summer.”
It sounds like the connections will take their time, then. Just like Justify.
Bee Jersey noses his way to Met Mile victory
The favorite Bee Jersey (3-1) led the whole way, but he still needed to come out ahead in the photo before trainer Steve Asmussen knew that his colt had held off Mind Your Biscuits (4-1) to win the $1.2 million Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.
“That horse did a great dive at the right spot,” Asmussen said of the late challenge. “You don’t think that he ever got in front of him. But he did reach out as good as he could. It might have been the wrong moment. That’s what I thought.”
Yet Asmussen was also confident in the result after seeing jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. celebrate right after crossing the wire on Bee Jersey, now 4-for-4 in 2018. It turned out to be just a nose that separated him from Mind Your Biscuits, a 6-year-old horse that has earned nearly $4 million – and was carrying four more pounds.
“My horse is a fighter horse, and he showed it today,” Santana said, “He just was waiting for the horses. When he felt it, he took hold again, and he gave me a second kick to pass the wire first.”
Limousine Liberal (14-1) finished another 5¼ lengths behind in third.
The winning time was 1:33.13 off fractions of 23.08, 45.71 and 1:09.28, all set by Bee Jersey. Asmussen did not commit to a next race for the winner, a 4-year-old colt sired by Jersey Town out of a Rahy mare.
“The Met Mile was our target at the beginning of the year,” Asmussen said. “We’ll celebrate this victory, regroup and try to map out a plan to get him to the Breeders’ Cup (Dirt) Mile in as good a shape as possible.”
Baffert collects wins in Phipps and Brooklyn
Baffert also collected early graded-stakes wins Saturday with Abel Tasman (1-1) by 7½ lengths in the $750,000 Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, a race for older fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles on the dirt, and with Hoppertunity (7-2) by 2¼ lengths in the $400,000 Grade 2 Brooklyn Invitational, a 1½-mile dirt race for 4-year-olds and up. Smith rode Abel Tasman, and Flavien Prat was aboard Hoppertunity.
Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl (3-5) returned to the track with a two-length victory in the $671,000 Grade 1 Acorn. Ridden by Florent Geroux for trainer Brad Cox, the 3-year-old filly took the lead in the turn to finish ahead of pace-setting runner-up Talk Veuve To Me (4-1) and third-place Gio Game (24-1).
Brown added another Grade 1 win to his impressive turf résumé when A Raving Beauty (7-2) took the lead turning into the stretch and went on to a three-quarter-length victory over Proctor’s Lodge (7-1) in the $700,000 Just A Game, a one-mile race for older fillies and mares. Lull (9-2) established early speed before finishing third.
Carrying six fewer pounds than the horse he held off, 6-year-old gelding Spring Quality (18-1) made a late run down the middle of the turf and caught Sadler’s Joy (5-1) at the wire to win by a neck in the $1 million Grade 1 Manhattan. It was the second straight time that Graham Motion has trained the winner of the 1¼-mile race for older horses after seeing Ascend win last year.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Belmont Stakes week at VSiN.com. You may hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.