Heading into Saturday’s Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., the story is obviously Justify, the 33rd horse to come to the Belmont after having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Only 12 of those 32 horses have won the Belmont, and Justify stands a very good chance of becoming the 13th.
When he won the Kentucky Derby, Justify became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the race without having raced as a two-year-old. He won his first four races seemingly effortlessly, and even when challenged in the Preakness three weeks ago, he drew on reserves of tenacity and stamina to prevail by a half-length, remaining undefeated.
His trainer, Bob Baffert, is at Belmont for the fourth time trying to win a Triple Crown. Unsuccessful in his first two attempts, in 1997 and 1998, he broke the 39-year Triple Crown drought three years ago with American Pharoah.
Justify is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. While all eyes will be on the chestnut colt with the big white blaze, racing enthusiasts and casual fans shouldn’t ignore the other stories in the race, or the opportunity to make a profit while trying to beat the favorite.
Such as: both Baffert and WinStar have other horses in the races. Baffert will run longshot Restoring Hope, who is owned by Gary and Mary West, and WinStar will run Noble Indy, owned in partnership with Repole Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher. So conceivably, both the owner and the trainer have a chance to win the race but lose the Triple Crown.
Tenfold finished less than a length behind Justify in the Preakness, finishing third, and he is sponsored by Sentient Jet, which has a charitable partnership with Homes For Our Troops, a non-profit that builds custom homes for injured and disabled veterans, at no cost to the service people.
Hofburg is even more lightly raced than Justify, but considered to have a good shot at the upset. Hofburg has just won just once in four races, but his second-place finish in the Florida Derby was impressive. He was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness.
Bravazo is trained by 82-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, a two-time winner of the Belmont (1995 and 2000) and finished a close second to Justify in the Preakness. An institution on the backstretch, Lukas is known for, on his way to the winner’s circle, choosing a child to come into the picture with him. Whether he’d do that for a Belmont Stakes win is debatable, but Lukas in the winner’s circle with or without a child would cause a media frenzy.
Gronkowski is indeed named for the football player, who purchased a share in his namesake this spring as the horse prepared for the Kentucky Derby. At the time based in England, Gronkowski suffered an infection that kept him out of the Derby, and he was then transferred by his owners to the U.S. barn of Chad Brown, last year’s Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer. Gronkowski has never raced on dirt, he’s never raced in the United States, and he’s never run beyond a mile (the Belmont is a mile and a half), but his odds on Saturday will almost certainly be lower than they should be because of his name.
The other runners in the Belmont are Free Drop Billy, Vino Rosso, and Blended Citizen. Free Drop Billy’s trainer Dale Romans became something of a local hero on Tuesday night when, after the Belmont Stakes draw was held at Citi Field, he performed the Heimlich maneuver during the Mets-Orioles game on a choking woman.
Vino Rosso is owned by two New Yorkers, Mike Repole of Queens and Vinnie Viola of Brooklyn, the former the founder of Vitamin Water (and the co-owner of Noble Indy), the latter the owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Both would consider winning their hometown race a crowning achievement.
Though based in California, Blended Citizen shipped to Belmont last month and won the Peter Pan Stakes; ignore experience and a win over Belmont’s unusual track configuration at your peril.
The weather forecast has improved, racing history is on the line, and there’s money to be made at the windows. Post time for the Belmont on Saturday is 6:46 pm, and the race will be televised on NBC. The winner will be worthy – good luck and safe trips to all the horses and jockeys.