When the Triple Crown is on the line, the nervous energy before the Belmont Stakes is unmatched by any other moment in sports.
It’s difficult to not feel chills go through your body as a calm hush of cautious optimism spreads amongst 90,000 fans while the horses approach the Belmont Park starting gate. I know, because for six times over the past 20 years, I’ve stood among the on-lookers, hoping to see greatness emerge.
I’m a lucky man to say that, in two weeks, I’ll get a seventh chance to stand amongst 89,999 other people with the hopes of seeing history unfold with Justify trying to become the 13th Triple Crown winner on June 9.
Even though I saw American Pharoah win the Triple Crown three years ago in person, I know all too well that the Triple Crown is far from a sure thing.
I chronicled my struggles to witness the first Triple Crown in my lifetime before Pharoah’s triumph in this article here from 2015. The journey of the Triple Crown has coincided with my interest and materialization as a horse racing writer. I’ve come a long way from being a brash college fraternity boy lugging 100 beer cans in coolers through the Belmont picnic area to see Charismatic lose in 1999, to now working for the Racing Dudes and covering Justify’s try to win the Test of the Champion and sweep the Triple Crown.
I have been fortunate to witness many great horse races over the past few years, but there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, like the Triple Crown.
When I said earlier in this article that it is unmatched by any other moment in sports, it needs to be reiterated that this feat has only been accomplished 12 times in the last 143 years (it’s been 99 years since Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919, when the Triple Crown wasn’t even recognized). If you look at the full history of the three Triple Crown races, this feat is rarer than Major League Baseball’s perfect game, which has had 23 occurrences in the last 140 years.
Additionally, I’ve been to the NBA Finals, NFL playoff games, and even Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series (known as the “Bloody Sock” game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees). Yet from my personal experience, no moment contends with the Triple Crown. The wall of sound that the large Belmont grandstand creates when the horses come into the stretch, with the Triple Crown hopeful dueling for the lead, is deafening.
I could talk again about all of the failures that I’ve seen in person, but instead, please check out my article from 2015 about seeing Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Big Brown, and California Chrome all falter at the chance to be etched into Triple Crown lore. For your amusement, though, here I am after the 2008 Belmont Stakes, holding the huge Big Brown sign that I made. My disappointment is matched only by my belligerence:
With that out of the way, I give you an early preview of the 2018 Belmont Stakes. The point of this article is not to say that Justify can’t sweep the Triple Crown, but to remind you why the Triple Crown is such a difficult task and to list the Top 5 Ways Justify Can Get Beat, like many before him. We’ll use examples of the nine previous horses that failed to sweep the Triple Crown over the past 21 years after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Way to Get Beat #1: The Break
Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith have said repeatedly that the break from the gate is the most important part of Justify’s race. Once Smith got Justify out of the gate cleanly in the Kentucky Derby, he said that he was confident that he would win the race. Baffert reiterated the same thing after the Derby and before the Preakness.
Justify has yet to sit behind horses in his career and hasn’t had dirt kicked in his face in any of his races. Smith has kept him in the clear in all of his starts and Justify has the talent to make his own trip, but it’s an unknown how he’ll react if he has to sit behind horses in the Belmont. A clean break is imperative to getting Justify in the clear early.
I’ve personally seen the break at the Belmont Stakes significantly hamper the chances of two runners with the Triple Crown on the line and both times these horses got caught behind horses early in the race:
2002 War Emblem
Also trained by Baffert, War Emblem stumbled out of the Belmont gate badly and then was bumped by Preakness runner-up Magic Weisner. After the tumult to start the race, jockey Victor Espinoza needed to rush him up. He had been on or near the lead in both his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins, so not getting a good spot early got him out of his comfort zone. After being caught behind three other horses on the backside, War Emblem got through on the rail to take the lead for a moment, but then faltered and faded quickly to finish eighth. Sarava’s upset win at 70-1 is still the biggest longshot to win the Belmont in the 149-year history of the race. This was Baffert’s third unsuccessful Triple Crown try:
2014 California Chrome
California Chrome sustained a bloody gash to his right front foot when Matterhorn stepped on him out of the gate, and the wound hurt his chance to sweep the Triple Crown. Chrome was shuffled back and never looked himself, then needed to swing four-wide into the stretch under Espinoza, but his tank was on empty. He finished a disappointing fourth behind Tonalist:
Way to Get Beat #2: The First Wave
The target on the back of a horse going for the Triple Crown is bigger than a helicopter landing pad. I said earlier in this article that everyone is rooting for the horse going for the Triple Crown, but actually, I meant everyone except the connections of the horses challenging the Triple Crown hopeful. They want nothing more to upset the apple cart and take home the Belmont trophy.
With each trainer and jockey plotting against the favorite, Justify will need to take on waves of competitors throughout the opening stages of the race.
Probables that may apply pressure to Justify early include the Preakness runner-up Bravazo and the third-place finisher Tenfold. Both are capable of showing early speed if asked, but neither are as fast early as Justify.
It also is possible that connections will enter a “rabbit” to try to coax Justify to go too fast early. Right now, Bandua, coming in from Ireland, may be the likely rabbit for Bravazo, as both are owned by Calumet Farm.
Baffert says that he’s running his own rabbit, Restoring Hope. He can show early speed, so perhaps he will to try to give Justify a target early in the race. Baffert has said that Justify is not like American Pharoah and would rather not have this Triple Crown hopeful try to control the race from the outset, which is what Pharoah did to win the Belmont in 2015.
Additionally, Noble Indy is now possible for the Belmont and could be another likely pacesetter if Smith decides that he would like Justify to sit off of the early pace. WinStar Farms partially owns both Justify and Noble Indy, so there will likely be clear directions to the jockeys that neither should hamper the other’s chances.
The European invader Gronkowski shouldn’t add much to the pace pressure on Justify and likely will sit mid-pack early in the Belmont.
Here are three examples of recent horses that dealt with early pace pressure which began their demise to attain the Triple Crown:
1997 Silver Charm
After getting caught three-wide into the first turn, the Baffert trainee Silver Charm battled throughout in the front pack and took the lead in the stretch, looking for Triple Crown glory. Touch Gold had other plans, though, and swung out to the three-path after a rail trip before wearing down Silver Charm late. Touch Gold beat Silver Charm by a 1/2-length and Baffert was unsuccessful in his first Triple Crown try:
2003 Funny Cide
Uncharacteristically, jockey Jose Santos decided to put Funny Cide on the early lead in the 2003 Belmont, as he had sat off the pace in his Derby and Preakness wins. His arch nemesis Empire Maker breathed down his neck to his outside throughout the early stages of the race and dismissed Funny Cide by the top of the stretch. Funny Cide would finish third after Empire Maker’s early pressure and talent were too much to endure by the overachieving New York-bred Funny Cide. He’ll still go down as one of my all-time favorites, though, as I’ll never forget standing in the rain by the finish line cheering for him with every ounce of my being.
2004 Smarty Jones
Hearts were broken when Smarty Jones couldn’t hold on to win the Belmont in 2004. Jockey Stewart Elliott moved a bit early on Smarty on the backside to take the lead, then was pressured by Eddington to his outside and Rock Hard Ten to his inside. After all of that, he still emerged into the stretch with an almost 4-length lead, but he was chased down by Birdstone late:
Way to Get Beat #3: The Final Wave
Both Silver Charm and Smarty Jones were caught late by horses that were near the pace. The theory goes that closers don’t usually win the Belmont, as the 1 1/2-mile race is more conducive to grinders that throw down even fractions than it is to closers that make one late sustained move.
Some of Justify’s top challengers have strong closing tactics, including the Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, trained by Todd Pletcher, the ninth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby after trailing in 18th to start the race. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott’s promising colt, Hofburg, had a troubled trip in the Derby to finish ninth. Both have strong distance pedigrees to excel at the 1 1/2-mile trek around “Big Sandy.”
The local prep for the Belmont, the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes, was won by closer Blended Citizen, and he’ll be looking to move late again here for two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill. Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy is another that will look to set up shop somewhere at the back of the pack for trainer Dale Romans, who’s been know to hit the board in this race in the past.
It’s true that horses usually don’t win the Belmont from 10 lengths back, but in the two cases below, horses in ninth and eighth at the mile point in the race spoiled the Triple Crown, so maybe Vino Rosso, Hofburg, Blended Citizen, or Free Drop Billy will get a similar type of winning trip in 2018:
1998 Real Quiet
Yet another Baffert trainee, Real Quiet looked like a winner after taking a 4-length lead in the stretch of the 1998 Belmont. Victory Gallop was in ninth, 7 lengths back, at the mile point in the race but was still able to chase down Real Quiet late to squash Baffert’s second Triple Crown try by a nose in a thrilling photo finish. What’s crazy about this race is that 20 years ago, Elliot Walden was Victory Gallop’s trainer that took down Baffert. Now, Walden is the CEO of WinStar Farms and the managing owner of Justify that’s teamed up with Baffert:
In his attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, Charismatic (under jockey Chris Antley) was caught chasing a hot early pace, flanking champion filly Silverbulletday into a swift 1/2-mile fraction of 47.60 seconds. Charismatic took a slim lead at the top of the stretch but was passed at the 1/8 pole by Lemon Drop Kid, a horse that was in eighth and almost 5 lengths from the lead at the mile point of the race. Charismatic fought on, but he could only muster third before being pulled up and vanned off after fracturing his front left leg in multiple places. He would never race again:
Way to Get Beat #4: Health
On the note of one of the most catastrophic endings to a Triple Crown try, the issue of health needs to be addressed.
On any given day, a horse can take a misstep galloping, hit his head in his stall, spike a fever, or find a million other ways to hurt himself. Horses are beautiful, flesh-and-blood animals, so anything can go wrong.
Justify stepped on some large rocks outside of his stall the morning after the Derby and favored his left hind. Even though he overcame that bruised heel issue, it’s an example of the many things that can affect him and his training in the next two weeks.
Here are two recent examples of horses that had health issues leading up to their Triple Crown tries:
2008 Big Brown
Big Brown didn’t even finish the Belmont in his Triple Crown try. Even though no physical issues were found after the race, Big Brown had a hoof problem leading up to the race that caused him to miss three days of training. Was the missed training the reason that he lost? He was superior to all of the other horses in his crop, but even he couldn’t win the last jewel of the Triple Crown; not at 100% health. We will never know if his injured hoof was his demise, but what we do know is that a horse has to have everything go the right way in order to win this grueling race:
2012 I’ll Have Another
The day before the Belmont in 2012, the shocking announcement was made that I’ll Have Another would be scratched and wouldn’t attempt to finish his Triple Crown effort. He was retired after suffering an injury to his left front tendon. Trainer Doug O’Neill said that I’ll Have Another had swelling in his left front tendon that was the beginning of tendinitis, which was first noticed the Thursday before the race. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the horse didn’t even make it to the Belmont starting gate.
Way to Get Beat #5: The Grind of the Triple Crown
As you may know, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont are run within a five-week time frame, which is partially what makes the Triple Crown road so difficult. Winning three races of any kind in five weeks is a feat in this era, let alone three Classics in such a short period.
Unraced as a juvenile, Justify already dispelled the “Curse of Apollo” by becoming the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. He has won five races (three that are Grade 1s) in 90 days and will now need to win a sixth in a total of 111 days (an average of 1 race every 18.5 days). Additionally, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont will be the longest race in which he’s ever run.
What Justify has already achieved is unprecedented, so if he’s able to capture the Triple Crown, it will undoubtedly go down as one the greatest accomplishments in sports history. He will also become just the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, with Seattle Slew (in 1977) the only unbeaten horse to have achieved the feat.
With no foundation built up in his juvenile year, will so much racing over such a short period time be his undoing?
To finish on an upbeat note, let’s compare Justify to American Pharoah. Justify may not need to repeat Pharoah’s trip to win the Belmont.
Going through the five ways in which a Triple Crown hopeful can get beat, Pharoah didn’t break well, but he recovered quickly to take the lead going into the first turn. He dismissed the first wave of horses (like Materiality and Mubtaahij) that tried to put pressure on him, and Pharoah didn’t let the final wave of Frosted and Keen Ice catch him. Above all, Pharoah stayed healthy throughout and didn’t let four races in eight weeks wear him down.
Will Justify take the lead in the Belmont, like Pharoah? Those tactics were used in Justify’s maiden breaking debut win at 7 furlongs and in his Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby win. Eight of the 12 Triple Crown winners captured the Belmont in gate-to-wire fashion, but Baffert has said recently that Justify is not the type of horse that will thrive by controlling the race from the outset, so he would rather have him run with a target in front of him.
So, the main question is: “Will the top 5 ways to lose the Triple Crown catch up to Justify?”
Once we get the field and post positions, check out our Belmont Wagering Guide for our thoughts and picks and follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim, as I’ll be sending out info and covering Belmont Stakes Day live from Belmont Park in two weeks!
To send you off on a high note and the hopes of another Triple Crown, here’s American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-clinching Belmont run: