Belmont Stakes controversy: Did alliance ensure a Justify victory?

Justify’s emergence as the only undefeated Triple Crown champion after Seattle Slew and the 13th horse overall to complete the rare sweep went from a feel-good story to one awash in controversy on Sunday.

Queens, N.Y., native Mike Repole, co-owner of fourth-place Vino Rosso and last-place Noble Indy in the field of 10, hopes Belmont Park stewards will question jockey Florent Geroux about his handling of Restoring Hope, Justify’s stablemate, for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

“Justify is a super horse. He is a Triple Crown winner and he’s undefeated,” said Repole, emphasizing his admiration for the powerful, 6-for-6 colt. “But I can see the stewards looking into this over the next couple of days. I probably expect them to look into reckless riding by Florent and bring him in to question him about what he was thinking and what his tactics were.”

While Justify and Mike Smith, his Hall of Fame rider, smoothly accelerated after breaking from the rail to seize the early lead, Geroux rode vigorously to hustle Restoring Hope toward the front. He soon assumed a position just behind Justify and to his outside.

“It definitely seemed to me he was more of an offensive lineman than a racehorse trying to win the Belmont,” said Repole of 37-1 Restoring Hope, “and Justify was a running back trying to run for a touchdown.”

Gary West, who owns Restoring Hope, was livid about the handling of his horse.

“I have no earthly idea what Florent was thinking or what his race strategy was,” he said in an email response to a request for an interview. “Had I known better, the first eighth of a mile I would have thought it was a quarter-horse race, not the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Maybe the horse was completely out of control and Florent had no choice. I will never know.”

Doug Bredar, the agent for Geroux, said he has no comment and Geroux has no comment.

When a reporter asked Baffert after the race if Restoring Hope served as a “wing man” for Justify, Baffert replied: “He has natural speed. His only chance was to be up near the lead.”

West declined comment on whether Restoring Hope was used to block for Justify, who settled into a comfortable, unpressured advantage that he never relinquished.

“Everyone looks at things differently,” West said. “We didn’t belong in the race, anyway, and that is my fault.”

When a reporter asked Baffert after the race if Restoring Hope served as a “wing man” for Justify, Baffert replied: “He has natural speed. His only chance was to be up near the lead.”

West declined comment on whether Restoring Hope was used to block for Justify, who settled into a comfortable, unpressured advantage that he never relinquished.

“Everyone looks at things differently,” West said. “We didn’t belong in the race, anyway, and that is my fault.”

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