Weekend Preview: Justify shoots for Triple Crown

By ROBERT KIECKHEFER, UPI Racing Writer  |  June 6, 2018 at 7:28 PM
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Justify goes for the Triple Crown Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, highlight of a massive, three-day festival of top-shelf racing at the Long Island oval that dominates the weekend's activity.

This year's and last year's Kentucky Oaks winners will be on the track at Belmont. War Story and Hoppertunity try to re-establish position among the older horse set. Hi Happy, Sadler's Joy and Beach Patrol face off on the turf. A pair of sprints bring together some of the fastest steeds in training. There are some 2-year-old hopefuls for next year's Triple Crown. And that just skims the surface.

Three of the races are "Win and You're In" affairs for November's Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs.

Woodbine, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs also contribute graded stakes to the weekend agenda while the international scene is quiet as Royal Ascot looms near.

And ... how about a jockey winning a race after losing her saddle? See "News and Notes".

The Triple Crown

Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify will start from the inside gate in a field of 10 Saturday his assault on the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes in New York.

Justify's trainer, Bob Baffert, is seeking his second Triple Crown after American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in 2015. Before that, he won the first two legs of the series with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002, only to fall short in the Belmont. There have been only 12 winners of the grueling series.

Baffert said he never likes the No. 1 gate, which can spell disaster if the horse misses the break even by a step. Still, he said, "You can have a great hole, but if you don't leave there, you're still going to be in trouble. We have it, we can't change it, so we're just -- you just deal with it."

On the spot to get Justify away alertly is Mike Smith, who did just that from the No. 7 slot in both the Derby and the Preakness. It will be Justify's first start from the inside gate but "Big Money Mike" has proved over and over that his talent and composure can handle just about any situation.

Only one other Belmont participant will have contested all three legs of the Triple Crown. Bravazo finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, then fell 1/2 length short of catching Justify in the Preakness. Bravazo drew gate No. 3 for the 1 1/2-miles Belmont.

Of the others in the Belmont starting gate, Hofburg finished seventh in the Derby, Vino Rosso was ninth, Free Drop Billy was 16th and Noble Indy was 17th. Tenfold was third in the Preakness and will try again. The three newcomers are Gronkowski, previously raced in England and now trained by Chad Brown; Blended Citizen, who was the last horse left on the also-eligible list before the Derby; and a second Baffert entry, Restoring Hope.

All 10 face the issue of the 1 1/2 miles and Bill Mott, who won the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer, said the actual physical makeup of the horse may be the most important part of the puzzle.

"Horses are made a little different, move a little differently, and some have the capacity to do it," said Mott, who also handled the immortal Cigar. "Training is part of it, but I'd rather have a horse that is capable of doing that rather than one that is challenging as a miler trying to stretch it out."

He could have that in Hofburg. The colt is by Tapit, who already has sired three Belmont winners, including Tapwrit last year. His dam is Soothing Touch, who is by Touch Gold, who won the 1997 Belmont and spoiled the Baffert-trained Silver Charm's quest for a Triple Crown.

Veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas, seeking a record 15th win in a Triple Crown race, said he hopes Bravazo can move to challenge Justify a little earlier in the Belmont than he did in his near-miss in the Preakness. And he agreed with Mott about pedigree and raw ability.

"They're all doing well," Lukas said. "I've watched them all train. With the big configuration of the racetrack and the sweeping turns, we should have a good trip. I think it'll get down to which horses have the pedigree and the stamina to finish."

Justify breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01 2/5 and galloped out 7 furlongs in 1:27 1/5 Monday at Churchill Downs in his last fast work before hitting the road Wednesday for Belmont.

Baffert said work rider Martin Garcia reported the colt "didn't even take a deep breath. All is good." Asked about Justify's chances, Baffert said, "He's become a rock star like Pharoah, so let's see if he can do it ... If it's meant to be, it's going to happen."

And by the way, if anyone still believes weather forecasts after the Kentucky Derby debacle, the odds of a fast track for the Belmont are good -- only a chance of afternoon showers on race day. However, the Derby Day forecast never mentioned any chance of the record rain that actually fell on Churchill Downs so ... caveat emptor.

Elsewhere on the weekend card:

Classic

War Story, Hoppertunity and Hard Study are the major players among nine entered to try 1 1/2 miles in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Brooklyn Invitational at Belmont. War Story, the 2-1 favorite on the morning line, comes off a runner-up showing in the $1.2 million Charles Town Classic. Hoppertunity, now 7, has done battle at the top level from California to Dubai but has only raced once before at Belmont, winning the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup in 2016. Hard Study is an up-and-coming son of Big Brown trained by Todd Pletcher and making his first graded stakes start.

Santa Anita on Sunday's has the $100,000 Grade III Affirmed for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles.

Distaff

While waiting for Justify to run in their colors in the Belmont, members of the China Horse Club will be rooting for their 2017 Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman to return to winning form in Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Ogden Phipps. The filly finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff but, after a long absence, faded to get home fourth in the La Troienne at Churchill Downs in her 4-year-old debut. She will face the likes of Unbridled Mo, Pacific Wind, Ivy Bell and American Gal in the Phipps, with is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" for the Distaff.

This year's Kentucky Oaks winner, Monomoy Girl, and the last year's juvenile filly champion, Caledonia Road, face off in Saturday's $700,000 Grade I Acorn for 3-year-old fillies, contested at 1 mile at Belmont Park. Seven are entered.

Dirt Mile

Saturday's $1.2 million Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs and drew an appropriately salty field of 11. Collectively, the 11 have won 26 graded stakes and nearly $12 million in purse money. The talented bunch is headed by Mind Your Biscuits, whose exploits include victories in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai this year and last. The competition obviously is stiff and includes Kentucky Derby contestant Bolt d'Oro and the 1-2 from the Grade II Churchill Downs, Limousine Liberal and Warrior's Reward. McCraken and Good Samaritan also are entered here.

Turf

Hi Happy and Sadler's Joy, the first two in last month's Grade I Man o' War, face off again in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Woodford Reserve Manhattan at Belmont Park. Joining them in a field of 13 are multiple Grade I winner Beach Patrol and One Go All Go, who reported third in the Man o' War.

Friday's $400,000 Grade II Gold Cup Invitational at Belmont Park, like Gold Cups around the world, is a marathon -- 2 miles on the grass. The difference is, unlike most other jurisdictions, American horses aren't accustomed to such distances, making handicapping iffy at best. Look to three European invaders, including Call to Mind, who was bred by her owner, Queen Elizabeth II. The others, Funny Kid and Prince of Arran, both have experience at the distance.

Filly & Mare Turf

Holy Helena has parlayed victories in last year's Woodbine Oaks and Queen's Plate over the Woodbine all-weather course into a nice turf career, with three straight wins on the green course. She will get a sterner test in Friday's $600,000 Grade II New York Stakes, stretching out to 1 1/4 miles on the Belmont grass. Last year's Grade I American Oaks winner Daddys Lil Darling and French stakes winner Esquisse are among the rivals.

Significant Form looks tough as part of a Chad Brown-trained trio in for Thursday's $200,000 Grade III Wonder Again for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park. The Creative Cause filly was fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and returned to win the Memories Of Silver Stakes at Aqueduct in April. There's also a significant European flavor to the field.

Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Old Forester Mint Julep at Churchill Downs attracted 11 fillies and mares to travel 1 1/16 miles. And 3-year-old fillies will contest Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Honeymoon Stakes at Santa Anita.

Turf Mile

Saturday's $700,000 Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont is packed with graded stakes winners. Proctor's Ledge and On Leave come direct from a 1-2 finish in the Grade II Distaff Turf Mile on Derby Day in Louisville. Lull, the Chad Brown-trained duo of Off Limits and A Raving Beauty, Dream Dancing, La Coronel and Cambodia all have run well enough to win this on a good day.

Turf Sprint

Lady Alexandra and Stormy Victoria head a field of 10 for Thursday's $200,000 Grade III Intercontinental for fillies & mares, going 7 furlongs on the Belmont Park grass. Lady Alexandra comes off a win in the 6-furlongs License Fee over the course. Stormy Victoria made a belated run in that to finish second, 3 1/2 lengths back, and should enjoy the added furlong.

A wide-open field of eight is drawn for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Jaipur Invitational, at Belmont, a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Stormy Liberal won last year's Breeders' Cup and since has raced in Hong Kong and Dubai, finishing second in the Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan. Conquest Tsunami was third in the Al Quoz in his last race. Disco Partner won last year's Jaipur. Blind Ambition and Pure Sensation also have good claims.

Sprint

Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Woody Stephens for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park, run at 7 furlongs, is incongruously named for the trainer who won five straight editions of the Belmont Stakes -- a 1 1/2-miles affair. Nonetheless, this is a fabulous betting race with 12 prospective starters. At least half have a decent chance of saluting the judges in this with Kanthaka the 3-1 morning-line favorite after winning the Grade III Laz Barrera at Santa Anita last time out. Selecting random numbers from 1 through 12 will produce a better chance of winning than any lottery game.

Some familiar names are on the list of eight set for Friday's $250,000 Grade II True North Stakes at Belmont. The field includes Limousine Liberal, Bobby Abu Dhabi, Whitmore, Westwood, Recruiting Ready, Always Sunshine and Imperial Hint. Add to that mix Joking, a 9-year-old Distorted Humor gelding who has not raced since consecutive victories in the 2016 True North and Grade I Vosburgh. As he prepared for the Breeders' Cup Sprint that year, Joking developed life-threatening pneumonia but now is reported fully recovered and ready to rumble.

Filly & Mare Sprint

A tough field of eight fillies and mares is set for Friday's $250,000 Grade III Bed o' Roses Invitational at Belmont Park. American Gal comes to the race off a victory in the Grade I Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Sunday's action is at Woodbine in the $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Hendrie Stakes, over the all-weather course.

Juvenile

Trainer Todd Pletcher fields a trio of recent maiden winners in Friday's $150,000 Tremont at Belmont Park. Outshine, Social Fan and Sombeyay "are doing well coming into this race," Pletcher said, adding, "Like a lot of these 2-year-old races, everybody's sort of in the same boat coming from a maiden win into a stake race." Steve Asmussen brings Sir Truebadour from Churchill Downs off a maiden win there. Wesley Ward has Mae Never No, a daughter of No Nay Never, a dual Group 1 winner in Europe for Ward in 2013 -- so watch out.

Juvenile Fillies

Ward, perhaps even more than Pletcher, has become deadly with 2-year-olds and sends out a pair of young fillies, Athens Queen and Wonder Stone -- both Keeneland maiden winners -- in Thursday's $150,000 Astoria at Belmont Park. Wonder Stone drew the rail and Athens Queen is outside in a field of eight that includes plenty of competition, coming from as far away as Santa Anita and Iowa. This is the 107th running of the Astoria.

Woodbine

In addition to the graded stakes action, Woodbine on Saturday has the $125,000 (Canadian) Plate Trial and the $500,000 (Canadian) Woodbine Oaks. The Oaks has been a springboard to the Queen's Plate in recent years.

News and Notes

It was quite a feat when Victor Espinoza hung onto California Chrome to win the Dubai World Cup despite his saddle slipping well back toward the horse's hindquarters. But that was nothing compared to the feat jockey Elaura Cieslick (just Google the name for the video) turned in Monday at Salon de Provence. As her saddle slipped completely upside down, Cieslick first balanced crosswise across the back of First Wood, then regained her posture and rode bareback -- to win the race. "I didn't have time to think about it," she said. "One minute I thought I'd fall. The next, we were balanced and off again."

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