Magic Man’s Preview and Picks for the 2018 Belmont: Can we Justify history?

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Justify and trainer Bob Baffert

Three years ago this week, I sat in great anticipation prior to the running of the 2015 Belmont as American Pharoah went for his place in history. It had been 37 years since we had a Triple Crown winner. You know the rest of the story.

Pharoah handled business and made me one of many happy horse racing enthusiasts. Here we go again as Justify tries to become the next one to try and add his name to the Triple Crown honor roll.

His trainer is Bob Baffert, who teamed with American Pharoah to sweep the Triple Crown races, tries to do so again here with Justify. Now if Justify finishes the job and wins the Triple Crown, where does that put Baffert among the greatest trainers? Consider it would obviously be his second historic Triple Crown conquest but also factor in that Baffert cut his teeth not with thoroughbred but with quarter horses. I can get into the debate his background inevitably will lead but I will save it for after Justify runs for glory Saturday.

How about a little more history at stake Saturday? I am here to try and pick my fourth consecutive Belmont exacta. As for the race ahead, I have admittedly been Justify’s harshest critic through this year’s Triple Crown. I still wonder why couldn’t Bravazo catch him three weeks ago in the Preakness. If you remember I bravely took Bravazo to win the Preakness and almost got the goods but Justify dug in and held on at the wire. I still managed to score the exacta but 15-1 on top would have paid a lot more.

As a handicapper, one is taught to forget and move onward so I will follow that rule with purpose. Here comes my horse-by-horse preview of this year’s Belmont with analysis and predictions. Will I finally relent and pick Justify to win? Well, you will have to read on for that answer so here we go.

RACE 11Belmont Stakes (Grade I) 

Post time: 5:46 p.m. CDT

PP Horse  A/S Med Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L
1 1 Justify (KY) 3/C L M E Smith 126 B Baffert 4/5
2 2 Free Drop Billy (KY)  3/C L R Albarado 126 D L Romans 30/1
3 3 Bravazo (KY) 3/C L L Saez 126 D W Lukas 8/1
4 4 Hofburg (KY) 3/C L I Ortiz, Jr. 126 W I Mott 9/2
5 5 Restoring Hope (KY) 3/C L F Geroux 126 B Baffert 30/1
6 6 Gronkowski (KY) 3/C L1 J L Ortiz 126 C C Brown 12/1
7 7 Tenfold (KY) 3/C L R Santana, Jr. 126 S M Asmussen 12/1
8 8 Vino Rosso (KY) 3/C L J R Velazquez 126 T A Pletcher 8/1
9 9 Noble Indy (KY) 3/C L J Castellano 126 T A Pletcher 30/1
10 10 Blended Citizen (KY) 3/C L K Frey 126 D F O’Neill 15/1

Owners: 1 – China Horse Club International Ltd., Head of Plains Partners LLC et al.; 2 – Albaugh Family Stables LLC; 3 – Calumet Farm; 4 – Juddmonte Farms, Inc.; 5 – Gary and Mary West; 6 – Phoenix Thoroughbred III; 7 – Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC; 8 – Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable; 9 -WinStar Farm LLC and Repole Stable; 10 – Sayjay Racing LLC, Hall, Greg and Hubbard, Brooke

Equipment Changes: 9 – Noble Indy – Blinkers off

HORSE-BY-HORSE ANALYSIS

1-Justify
A lot of racing fans and all involved would like to see this very number take the win on Belmont Day. If that were to happen, we would celebrate our 13th Triple Crown winner. I’ve picked against him before, and I may be inclined to pick against him here. Consider that this will be his sixth race in 114 days. It is the ultimate endurance test, his longest race at a mile and a half. They don’t call the Test of the Champion for nothing. You have to be special to sweep these three races in five weeks. I feel like, although Justify is a very good horse, I just don’t see him as immortal. Since I have hinted at picking against him for the win, can I really be brave and completely toss him from any exotics? Stay tuned, loyal readers…

2-Free Drop Billy
Once upon a time this horse was held in high regard but he has not lived up to any expectations placed upon him. He was nowhere to be found in the Kentucky Derby and was properly rested for this. His speed figures as compared to the main body of contenders just do not measure up and as much I respect Dale Romans as a trainer I think he is force feeding this horse to us. I cannot consider him for any exotics.

3-Bravazo
Man oh man, why couldn’t he catch Justify in the Preakness? I knew he had a top effort in him because his Derby was deceptively good and I told you in my preview not to ignore him. As much as I liked him that day, I am not as bullish here. Here is why. Being someone who was born and raised in New York, I hold their handicappers in high regard so when the morning line for this race came out, I was flabbergasted that he was set at 8-1. Off of a bang up Preakness with a rider who was only just getting acquainted with him that day and off a strong mile work for this race, it would seem that he is approaching Saturday with all systems go. Maybe I am missing something here? Not really. I think he may regress off a big effort in the Preakness. Is that enough to completely throw him out here? Ah keep reading…

4-Hofburg
The second choice in the morning line leading up to this Belmont Stakes made up a lot of ground in the Kentucky Derby after being steadied twice after a tardy break. I believe he gained a lot of experience in that outing and now has his chance to run a breakout race. Go back to his Florida Derby earlier this year in which he ran second to Audible. Remember how strong Audible ran in the Kentucky Derby and now this guy’s form looks more flattering without Audible here. His trainer Bill Mott is one of the most patient trainers around and for him to basically throw this guy to the wolves but have him run the way he did tells me he has an absolutely monstrous chance here. He will definitely be on my exacta at the very least but is he my pick to win?

5-Restoring Hope
Horse racing handicapping No. 1 rule in this special situation reads like this: If you have a trainer who has a horse that could cinch a Triple Crown, you take pause when he also enters a horse who clearly cannot compete. They shipped to New York earlier this year and he did not discredit himself by finishing third in the Wood Memorial but he had an absolutely terrible trip in the Pat Day Mile on Derby day. I get the feeling that this horse will serve as a rabbit but could end up as a trap for Justify to chase. Although he won’t be around at the finish, I am concerned he could hurt more than help Justify. I cannot understand why this guy is in this race and is an easy toss out for me.

6-Gronkowski
Named for the polarizing tight end of the New England Patriots, this guy was supposed to run in the Kentucky Derby but came up sick. Since then he was transferred to trainer Chad Brown and has worked well over conventional dirt on which he will try for the first time Saturday. His rider Irad Ortiz Jr. won this race two years ago aboard Creator, and his Timeform ratings suggest he belongs here class wise. Solid works coming into this race encourage me despite the inexperience on dirt. I would not be so quick to dismiss him.

7-Tenfold
Running a really solid third in the Preakness three weeks ago make you think think he could move forward here. Like we ask with Justify, is this too much too soon? Consider that he was clear of Bravazo mid-stretch and was passed by him late for second.  Maybe he regresses off of that Preakness effort.  Also he didn’t debut until mid-winter. I did not like him in the Preakness so I refuse the the bait here and plan to let him beat me.

8-Vino Rosso
A tough trip in the Kentucky Derby ended with promise as he passed horses late in finishing ninth. He has been rested since for this race and I loved his win in the Wood Memorial where, although he did not beat a whole lot quality, he was visually impressive. He has a real chance to bounce back, and his connections must be respected. I will definitely consider him in the exacta box but one word of caution. Closers are a sucker bet for the Belmont on the win end. I do not see a red-hot pace developing so maybe he slides in underneath any tickets.

9-Noble Indy
The second of the Todd Pletcher starters is listed at 30-1 on the morning line but has a real chance at an upset. Before you call me crazy, let’s look closer. Two races back he had a very gutsy win in the Louisiana Derby, and I will absolutely toss his Kentucky Derby over a quagmire at Churchill. He broke from the 19 post and never really had a chance. I like how his connections have been spacing his races and I absolutely love how he is training coming into this Belmont. He has enough speed to be forwardly placed while his breeding tells me he should have no problem at this long trip. At the end of the day, he merits looks in exotics.

10-Blended Citizen
The Peter Pan Stakes yielded a win in his prep for the Belmont. I’m not sure what to make of who he beat that day though. He already has 10 lifetime outs and ran his best figure in the Peter Pan. What I am suggesting is he does not seem like a horse who has another forward move in him for this race. The post doesn’t help here, and a young inexperienced rider at this level in Kyle Frey lead me to think I should eliminate him.

My Selections

1st: 4-Hofburg – I think he will leave higher than his morning line price and is going to offer up terrific value as a true contender to win it.

2nd: 9-Noble Indy – This one seems like he is well placed here. His connections carefully spot and that is a good sign. I expect him to be forwardly placed as the bomb who can fire a big race, especially considering he gets Javier Castellano aboard.

3rd: 6-Gronkowski – I mentioned that he has ever tried conventional dirt but his numbers suggest he will run well here. Chad Brown has taken over his training and in the days leading up to the race, he has worked big for this over the Belmont surface. I will use him in my exotics.

4th: 8-Vino Rosso – He has a license to rebound off a tough trip in the Derby. It the pace gets hot, he could even win it but at the very least he is in my exotics.

That’s right. You do not see Justify in my top four picks. Let me say this once more about Justify – I don’t hate him one bit. It’s just that each of the past two races I gave legitimate reasons as to why he could lose but the mile-and-a-half distance is what I think finally does in his run at history. Go back and listen to Justify’s rider Mike Smith during his post-Preakness interview. The horse came back tired off that race, and you’re telling me he has another winning race like that here? I am not biting.

I feel pretty confident in how I formed up this race. I will either look like an idiot if Justify does win or I will keep my moniker as the Magic Man if he gets beat, perhaps even soundly.

One thing I do hope for is a dry and fast track for the Belmont because the card is super strong. It should be a splendid day of racing.

As I leave you don’t forget to listen to my analysis this Saturday on the Three Tailgaters show with Ken Trahan, Ed Daniels and Rick Gaille on WGSO Radio in New Orleans right before noon Central time. Prior to that I will be on Bayou State Sports Saturday streaming online with Johnny Marchese and Mike Garcia. Ed, if this box comes home, this will be the absolute score of a lifetime.

I will be back soon after we conclude the Triple Crown when the focus shifts to other divisions which have important races ahead. Until then as always, may your winners be plentiful and your wallets be fat.

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George Pepis

George Pepis

Horse Racing Analyst

George Pepis provides racing analysis during each Fair Grounds racing season. He also shares commentary and selections for major stakes events and prep races around the country. In the past, George has hosted sports talk programming on WGSO 990am in New Orleans. He has served as both play-by-play and color analyst on Louisiana high school football radio and internet broadcasts.

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