If Justify loses the Belmont Stakes, it won’t be because of a reason.
It won’t be because the Preakness took too much out of him, or he’s had too many races in too few days, or the New York jockeys will gang up on him — or there’s a Belmont Jinx. (Well, there is a Belmont Jinx, of course, but it shouldn’t apply to Justify.)
No, things might happen, can always happen in a horse race, but I think the way Justify dominated the Kentucky Derby, fielded all they could throw at him in the Preakness, and continues to train forwardly, leaves him nicely set for the June 9 Belmont Stakes and a run at the Triple Crown.
It won’t be a reason that beats Justify.
But it could be another horse.
And like Paul Revere, we’ve got the horse right here: The name is Tenfold.
Yes, the same Tenfold who came running in the Preakness but couldn’t catch Justify. And got passed, himself, late, by Bravazo.
On paper, Tenfold has the look of a coming horse that “needed” his last race, and could be stronger in his next.
It’s a handicapping thing.
Looking at “past performances” in the Daily Racing Form, what you’re trying to do is forecast what a horse will do NEXT. We already know Tenfold ran a close third in the Preakness, but what will he do in his next start?
And getting a little tired in the late going at 1 3/16 miles — the Preakness distance — in just his fourth lifetime start (one less than Justify) could mean he might “stretch out” nicely in distance when they go 1 ½ miles in the Belmont Stakes.
And it could be that he runs great in the Belmont, and still gets beat by Justify.
But maybe not. The distance between Justify’s expected 2-5 odds and Tenfold at 10-1 is a very big distance.
That is, if you like money.
If it’s just a Triple Crown you’re rooting for, there’s only one horse that fits that bill. And it is not Tenfold.
Out of sight, in plain sight
It’s interesting that this horse Tenfold is right there every morning, training over the same track at Churchill Downs, at the same 7:30 a.m. time as Justify — and nobody can see how good he looks.
Because they aren’t looking.
They only have eyes for Justify — and they’re probably right. Even I think Justify is a likely Belmont winner.
But if you look at Tenfold, this long, dark handsome colt, with a bright white star on his face, you have to be impressed. He looks like a horse ready to roll.
And Tenfold’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, thinks so, too.
“He is a very good horse right now,” Asmussen says. “He put everybody on notice of that in the Preakness, and I don’t think the circumstances necessarily favored him, the way the racetrack was playing and everything. I think he showed his quality.”
The Pimlico track was sloppy and shrouded in fog. But the pace scenario probably did help Tenfold.
But Asmussen, who handles Tenfold for prominent owners Winchell Thoroughbreds, isn’t replaying the Preakness. He’s looking forward with the son of Curlin, from a mare by Tapit. Looking forward, maybe beyond the Belmont.
“I think we’re just touching the surface of his talent, who he’s going to be,” Asmussen says. “He is developing more personality with the added pressure, and in a very good way — just a confident sense of direction, getting stronger, eats more aggressively. I think he’s going to be a very exciting horse down the road, as well as 12 days from now.”
That “12 days” was from Monday, when Tenfold was out for a morning gallop. He is expected to work at speed this weekend at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Belmont.
On this morning, Tenfold came out on the track under exercise rider Angel Garcia, and in the company of a stable pony ridden by assistant trainer Scott Blasi. Just sauntering along, Tenfold seemed to be kind of posing — perhaps trying to figure out how to look regal and royal. He’s new to the game.
Over the track at a gallop, Tenfold has a long reach and put his hooves down purposefully. He’s not silent over the path. But he’s long, and not overstuffed with muscles in the rear end, like a sprinter. He long and lean, like a distance horse.
Back at the barn, Tenfold is Mr. Curious, eyeballing a photographer, trying to get a sniff of the camera as he passes. And then looks back as he goes by.
“This is a horse that’s raced four times,” Asmussen says. “Every time you lay your eyes on him, he’s a little stronger. I love the direction it’s going.”
Justify, coming to Belmont Park
Of course, he’ll still have Justify to deal with, and the bright chestnut continues to look a painting in the mornings at Churchill Downs.
He’s bright, eager, long striding. His mane ruffles in the wind, and he lifts his front legs like pistons, wanting to do more as he’s tightly reined by exercise rider Humberto Gomez
“He’s moving really well, hitting the ground really well,” Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert says. “You can tell the rider has his hands full.”
In this writer’s past trips to the Belmont, it’s always been beautiful weather. Sunny, pretty, five weeks from the Derby. Early June.
And very green. Belmont Park is out on Long Island, at the eastern edge of Queens. City suburbs. Like a forest, with lawns, and pretty homes — and a mammoth racetrack built over vast acreage.
The track was opened in 1905, with its own station on the Long Island Railroad. In the early days of aviation, pilots used the infield at Belmont Park for a landing strip for air shows. Today it has two turf courses inside the main dirt track.
The main dirt track is 1 ½ miles in circumference, as opposed to Churchill Downs’ 1-mile oval. From the grandstand, the backstretch looks like it’s in the next county. And the turns seem to go on and on. Gradually bending. No sharp angles at Belmont Park.
“You know what, I really think he will like those big, swooping turns better, being a big horse,” Baffert says.
Then he switches the focus from the track to his horse.
“He has to show up,” Baffert says. “My job, if he shows up, is he fit enough? If he’s fit enough, then he’ll get it done. And that’s what the Triple Crown is all about, to see what you’re made of.”
Also training at Churchill is Free Drop Billy, who was just 16th in the Derby but looked sharp training over a fast track this week, clicking off five furlongs in :59 3/5, and looking eager every step of the way. Trainer Dale Romans has finished third in the Belmont four times, and one expects this horse will be reserved early to see how much of the purse he can sweep up late.
Standing a better chance at winning, in the opinion of most observers, is Bravazo, who was second to Justify in the Preakness, finishing very well.
Several fans have pointed out that if the Preakness had been three jumps farther, Bravazo would have won.
In the first place, that’s not certain. Justify had already put away hard-pressing Good Magic and then held off the late-comers, Tenfold and Bravazo.
In the second place, they don’t write races like the Preakness for “One and three-sixteenths miles, plus three jumps.” The jocks know where the wire is, and so do most of the horses.
Bravazo does look good, though, training at Churchill. He’s a nice-looking steed, happily bucking and squealing while training. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas says Bravazo is full of gusto.
“He’s flourished this spring,” Lukas says. “You know, some of these 3-year-olds just seem to hit a plateau — level off on you, and there’s not much you can do. But some of them get better every week. He’s flourishing.”
You can tell Lukas, 82, is proud of the way his horse emerged to come closer to Justify than any horse has ever come.
And he’s proud to be associated with owner Brad Kelley, who, Lukas says, has accepted the responsibility that goes with the tradition of being the owner of Calumet Farm.
“He’s got a pretty good feel for this whole thing,” Lukas says. “He doesn’t talk about ‘my horse,’ he talks about ‘our horse.’”
So the trainer is happy to level with the owner.
“I told him it’s going to be very difficult to beat this horse (Justify). We probably had our best chance at him in the Preakness.”
But Bravazo will get another shot.
“The horse is really happy, and I’m really aware of that,” Lukas says. “That’s the energy level. You’ve got to get the energy level up if you’re going to come back in three weeks,”
Looking like 11 in the Belmont
Eleven horses are now expected for the Belmont. Beyond the above mentioned four at Churchill, trainer Todd Pletcher will send out Derby also-rans Vino Rosso and Noble Indy.
Trainer Chad Brown is now training English import Gronkowski, named for Rob Gronkowski, the star tight end of the New England Patriots, who owns a small piece of the horse.
Also expected is Hofburg, who got caught up in a bunched up field in the Derby and didn’t get running until late — covered with mud. Baffert is also entering a horse named Restored Hope, and Doug O’Neil has one called Blended Citizen.
There’s also a horse coming from Ireland … no, no, not Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn bombed in the Derby and has reportedly been sent back to music school. This one is called Seahenge. We’ll we’ll talk with our spies (stable sources) and have a final report this week. Plus maybe some betting advice.
I know, you can hardly wait.