GELFAND: Can Anyone Beat Justify in Saturday's Belmont Stakes?

Photo Credit: Patrick McDermott (USA Today Sports)

Before I throw out some picks for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, it’s only fair to acknowledge that the 1 1/2 mile race is a vestigial ritual that became archaic decades ago. Which might be one reason you haven’t detected much Triple Crown Mania lately.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way…

Seriously, I’m the last guy who wants to kill your thoroughbred high. I’m one of the buzzards who still believes that handicapping a horse race is the intellectual challenge of kings, even if the sport itself is in large part dominated by hustlers, pharmacological geniuses and billionaires who are buying victories with plantation money and oil swag. And this from a guy who would rather lose betting horses than win playing poker.

I wasn’t always this skeptical about the resuscitative potential of a Triple Crown winner. I figured horse racing might at least get a reprieve from oblivion in 2015 when a misspelled horse named American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. But what followed was just a temporary pause in a steady decline in attendance and wagering.

There’s just too much competition these days. Sports betting has become the fastest growing national addiction — well behind alcohol and opiates, perhaps, but gaining ground fast.

And, although it’s probably just a coincidence, the thoroughbred itself is regressing to the mean almost as fast as the two-legged mammals who wager on it.

Justify, who is an odds-on favorite to complete the Triple Crown on Saturday, isn’t exactly a chip off the old Secretariat block. You can see that from the speed figures, which calls for a brief explanation. Speed figures are used to calculate a rating for horses’ final times by figuring in just how fast a track is playing in any given race. Using those figures, it becomes apparent that Justify’s final time in the Preakness was among the slowest ever for a winner of the Triple Crown’s middle leg.

That said, Justify’s Kentucky Derby victory was certainly impressive — perhaps more so because it was just his fourth-ever start. It was also a training coup for Bob Baffert, because Justify became the first Derby winner since 1882 not to have raced as a two-year-old.

It might seem a bit harsh to find any fault at all in a horse who has won all five of his races, collecting about $3 million in purse money in the process. But you don’t win money wagering at the track without looking for flaws. Here, in order, are Justify’s speed figures, as calculated by the prestigious Bloodstock Research: 100, in a 9 1/2-length score in a maiden race at Santa Anita; 104, 6 1/2 lengths, allowance race at Santa Anita; 114, 3 lengths, Santa Anita Derby; 102, 2 1/2, Kentucky Derby; 98, 1/2 length, in the Preakness.

It seems to me there might be a trend here.

Now, this is the part of the column in which I acknowledge that Justify is one hell of a horse and certainly the best three-year-old colt in the country. And, measured by pure speed, among the fastest. He’s been in front at just about every call, running as fast as he needed to in order to clear the field. He is, in short, a great athlete.

But you knew that. The question is whether he’s going to win the Belmont on Saturday, and that gets us back to that part about the Belmont being a relic. Because horses simply are no longer bred to run three long and grueling races in five weeks — and they’re especially not bred to run 1 1/2 miles. Ever. The Belmont Stakes, once the ultimate test of a racehorse, is now simply a struggle to survive. And, although humanitarianism is not a revered quality at the track, it can certainly be argued that it just isn’t right to subject horses to such an ordeal.

It wasn’t always that way. Before horses were bred almost purely for speed — as opposed to endurance — and campaigned more gently at two and three, the best ones could run all day. Author John Eisenberg, in “The Great Match Race,” tells the true story of the 1823 race between the North’s Eclipse vs. the South’s Sir Henry, an event witnessed by perhaps 60,000 rabid — and often intoxicated — spectators.

While the size of the crowd was unprecedented, the logistics weren’t. Like some other races of the day, this was a two-out-of-three contest, with each heat measuring four miles. There would be a break of about an hour between heats — not for the horses, but for the jockeys. Win or lose on Saturday, there’s a strong chance that Justify won’t race a total of 12 miles in his lifetime.

Now, I’m not certain that he’s starting to lose his edge, or that the decline in speed figures will continue. But he could certainly be forgiven if that’s the case. And, no, there’s not one horse in particular who jumps off the pages of the past performances. It’s just that there are fresher horses, maybe even horses bred just a bit better to get the distance. So let’s examine the possibilities, in order of post position.

1. Justify 4-5

Although trainer Baffert is, predictably, pissing and moaning about getting the one-hole, there’s no bad post position when you’re the quickest horse out of the gate. In fact, assuming that the rail is good on Saturday — and I expect it to be — Justify couldn’t have a better post. And it also helps that there isn’t any one horse in the race who figures to provide zealous competition for the lead. That said, I can’t see all nine other jockeys letting Justify set soft fractions. More about that later.

2. Free Drop Billy 30-1

Forty-one lengths back in the Derby, and nowhere to go but up. Still…why?

3. Bravazo 8-1

Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lucas is going for his third Belmont score. Having finished second in the Preakness after a sixth-place finish in the Derby, this colt has a shot, although I’d prefer a fresher horse.

4. Hofburg 9-2

Why not? Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s horse is fresh, having skipped the Preakness after a troubled Kentucky Derby. Lots of potential here in only his fifth race, and his sire, Tapit, has fathered three of the past four Belmont winners. In the one race of the year in which bloodlines mean so much, that might be enough for me to back Mott and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., who rode Belmont winner Creator in 2016. This horse also has plenty of speed, and Mott has suggested that he might send Ortiz to the front or at least make sure Justify doesn’t have things his own way.

5. Restoring Hope 30-1

Baffert also trains this horse, and it would certainly be ironic if the long-shot cost Justify the Triple Crown. On the other hand, I’ve never known a trainer who was into irony.

6. Gronkowski 12-1

On paper, he might be competitive in an allowance race at Canterbury. But the morning line suggests that he might have a chance. Plus, if he finishes last, his famous co-owner might challenge the horse to a match race.

7. Tenfold 12-1

Finished third and beaten by less than a length in the Preakness in just his fourth start. May well be coming up to his best race for trainer Steve Asmussen, whose horses win a lot of races they shouldn’t. Asmussen trained Belmont winner Creator two years ago. No reason not to bet this one on top in a few exactas.

8. Vino Rosso 12-1

Took some serious money in the Derby despite leaving from the 18-hole, probably because of his impressive victory in the Wood Memorial. A contested pace will help him greatly, and I can’t hold his ninth-place finish against him in Louisville. I mean, there shouldn’t even be 18 post positions.

9. Noble Indy 30-1

Finished 17th in Kentucky, but another one who had no shot because of post position (19). Could be a solid pace factor and might even have a shot if Justify doesn’t fire.

10. Blended Citizen 15-1

Earned a competitive speed figure in winning the Grade 3 Peter Pan at Belmont. Took him a long time to hit his stride, but moving in the right direction.

————

Because my specialty is betting on cheap horses at Heroin Belt tracks, I would never suggest anyone follow my picks in Triple Crown races. But having not disgraced myself in the first two legs, I’ll take a few stabs.

Mostly, the idea here is to lose with dignity, which means trying to beat Justify. So I’ll play exactas with Bravazo, Hofburg, Tenfold and Vino Rosso on top and Justify on the bottom. If I have to pick one of them for a win bet, I’ll go with Hofburg because I like the trainer, the sire, the fact that he’s fresh and the unfortunate trip he had from the nine-hole in the Kentucky Derby. Breaking from a middle post, he was immediately surrounded by more horses than he’d ever seen before, and he had to be steadied twice. I suppose that I’ll wind up using Hofburg in exactas with the others I like, and certainly in a box with Justify. Probably on the bottom of a trifecta, too.

But I won’t expect to win, because I never do. And that’s one horse racing tradition that I expect to endure.

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