While Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Justify continued his training regime at Churchill Downs on Friday, fellow Belmont Stakes (G1) contender HOFBURG stepped out at Saratoga on the same day for a six-furlong breeze over the fast Oklahoma training track.
The Juddmonte Farms homebred clocked three-quarters in 1:13.43 after the track had been harrowed, which made the surface a bit deeper according to trainer Bill Mott.
“I thought it was a very good work on the training track,” Mott said. “The best part about it was he looked like he was moving very well. We went six furlongs with him and from the half-mile pole, he was: :48 1/5; 1:00 3/5; 1:13 3/5; galloped out good and came home in good order. It looked like he took a couple of deep breaths and caught his breath in a hurry.”
British-bred stablemate Forge, third in the Maker’s 46 Mile (G1) most recently, joined Hofburg in the stretch.
“Forge joined him for a short ways in the stretch to just make sure he completed his work in good order,” Mott said. “He didn’t quite get up on equal terms with him, but Forge did his job, and ensured a good work for Hofburg.”
Hofburg boasts just one win from four career starts thus far, breaking his maiden in his second outing on March 3 at Gulfstream Park. He earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate thanks to a runner-up effort in the Florida Derby (G1), and wound up seventh at 27-1 in the Run for Roses last out.
Mott gave Hofburg a break after the first jewel of the Triple Crown instead of sending him to the Preakness, and the Tapit chestnut recorded his second move since the Derby on Friday. He breezed a half-mile in :49.32 over the Oklahoma training track on May 18.
“Visually, he looks like he’s carrying his flesh as well as he did heading into the Derby,” Mott said. “I didn’t think we had that much to gain by going to the Preakness. We felt like (since) we didn’t win the Derby and had no chance to be a Triple Crown winner, we wanted to take our best shot at the Belmont Stakes.”
Hofburg is scheduled for one more breeze at Saratoga before shipping to Belmont Park, where he’s expected to arrive no later than June 5.
“I’m pleased with what I’m seeing. He came out of the Derby in good order. We gave him an easy week after the Derby and after two weeks, we gave him his first work and today he had his second one,” Mott said. “He’ll have another one next weekend and then go on down to Belmont and get familiar with his surroundings.
“Justify is a very good horse, and I would have been one of the first skeptics when he came into the Derby,” the Hall of Fame conditioner added. “Being a horse who hadn’t run as a two-year-old; I’ve always been a believer that horses need to run as two-year-olds in order to the win the Derby. You have him to give him credit. We have a lot of respect for Justify, but on the same token, we don’t want to hand him the Belmont on a silver platter. If he wins it, we’re going to make him work for it.”
NOBLE INDY and VINO ROSSO also took to the track on Friday, breezing an in-company bullet four furlongs in :47.04.
Jockey Javier Castellano was aboard Noble Indy, who worked inside of Vino Rosso and John Velazquez. The pair breezed over Belmont Park’s fast main track just after the renovation break and galloped out five furlongs in :59.80, according to the NYRA clockers. Neither wore blinkers for the move, as they’ve done in their past few races.
“Vino Rosso and Noble Indy both breezed exceptionally well,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “It was a little quicker than we wanted, but they both seemed to do it well in hand, very comfortable, galloped out strongly. After talking to everybody, I think both of them are in the mix for the Belmont now.
“I was surprised watching it at how fast they were going because they didn’t look like they were going that fast,” he added. “Javier on Noble Indy and Johnny on Vino Rosso were sitting motionless and I cautioned them on the radio a couple times, ‘Easy guys, easy, you’re going a little quick.’ You could see they were sitting still, but if there was a right kind of fast work, it was done easily and it didn’t seem to stress the horses. They both came to the wire full of energy and galloped out strongly.
“I like the way they came back. They didn’t take long to cool out and it looked like they cooled out well.”
Noble Indy joined the Belmont discussion after stablemate, Florida Derby (G1) victor and Kentucky Derby third-placer AUDIBLE was taken out of consideration. Audible is campaigned by the same ownership group as Justify – WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners – while Noble Indy is owned by WinStar Farm and Repole Stable.
Audible galloped on Friday over Belmont’s main track and will now target a summer campaign, with the July 28 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) at Saratoga and Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park one day later as options for his next start.
WinStar President and CEO Elliott Walden watched both Audible and Noble Indy train at Belmont Friday morning.
“After talking to Elliot, we decided to freshen him up and point for a summer campaign,” Pletcher said of Audible. “I don’t feel like he’s doing quite as well as he was leading into the Derby. We’ve kind of had a couple of weeks here where a lot of his training has been on sloppy tracks, but now that we’ve had some good weather and some good surfaces, I just don’t feel like he’s where he needs to be to feel like he’s going to win the Belmont.
“WinStar is fully on board with running (Noble Indy) if the horse continues to do well,” Pletcher added. “The breeze this morning was I think as good as I’ve seen him breeze. He’s a decent workhorse, but I thought this morning is the best I’ve seen him go. I think he put himself in the mix today.”
JUSTIFY was out at Churchill Downs on Friday during the special 7:30-7:40 a.m. training period the track has set aside exclusively for Belmont Stakes hopefuls. The Bob Baffert pupil galloped 1 1/2 miles under exercise rider Humberto Gomez.
“It was a very good morning,” assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said. “We did exactly what Bob wanted us to do. He galloped a little bit further today but he told us, once again, to take it easy with him. It’s nice to gallop out there all alone. We wanted him to go an easy pace and he was able to do so without any traffic.”
Justify captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown over sloppy, sealed tracks, something Baffert thinks may have helped his colt.
“I think the mud was easier for him than having a firm track,” Baffert said by phone. “When it’s mud, it’s not as tiring. Not as taxing as, I think, a fast or wet-fast track is. Especially when they’re not as deep like they are at Belmont. Nothing compares to that Belmont surface. That thing is deep.
“We don’t care,” he added. “We just want to go up there and can’t worry about the track. We just want him to run his ‘A’ game.”
BRAVAZO and TENFOLD joined Justify during the special training period at Churchill on Friday. Exercise rider Danielle Rosier was aboard Bravazo, who galloped 1 1/2 miles for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Tenfold visited the starting gate and galloped 12 furlongs under Angel Garcia for conditioner Steve Asmussen.
“We can’t just let Justify have it,” Lukas joked after watching Bravazo inch closer to Justify during their gallops. “(Bravazo) bounced out of the Preakness in great shape. Justify is the real deal but my horse is very talented as well. I don’t think there is any issue with him going 1 1/2 miles. It’s a test to every horse in the race because no one has done that before.”
In other Belmont Stakes news, Baffert may send Wood Memorial (G2) third-placer RESTORING HOPE to join Justify in the “Test of the Champion.” A decision on the Giant’s Causeway colt’s participation will be made in the week leading up to the race.
“He’s doing well,” Baffert said by phone. “We’re going to watch him train and put a few more works in him. He ran really well in the Wood, ran a nice third in there. I think sometimes with the mile and a half, they can get a piece of it. There’s a lot of horses that don’t want to go that far, and for others they seem to do well. We’ll see.”
Restoring Hope was last seen finishing 12th in the Pat Day Mile (G3) over Churchill’s sloppy, sealed track the Kentucky Derby undercard. The dark bay colt wore blinkers in that contest, the first time he’s done so since finishing third in his second career start at Santa Anita Park on December 30.
“I think he had trouble with it,” Baffert said in reference to the off conditions of the Pat Day Mile. “I thought he was going to run good. He trains well, he’s a real good work horse, and he’s training well. It seems like he’s getting better so we’re giving him a chance.”
Another possible Belmont Stakes shooter is Grade 1 hero FREE DROP BILLY from trainer Dale Romans’ shedrow. The Union Rags colt is scheduled to work Sunday at Churchill, after which a decision will be made on whether or not he’ll take part in the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
“We’re pointing that way as of now,” Romans said of the Belmont Stakes. “We’ll just see how it goes the next few days. We’ll see how he works this weekend and we’ll all talk about it.”
Free Drop Billy ran 16th in the Kentucky Derby last out, his fourth loss from as many starts this season. As a juvenile he captured the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and ran second in both the Hopeful Stakes (G1) and Sanford Stakes (G2) at Saratoga.
If the chestnut colt goes in the Belmont, he’ll be ridden by Derby jockey Robby Albarado. Another option is the grassy Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) on July going 1 1/4 miles.
“He’s a Grade 1 winner. He doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for being there (in the Belmont Stakes),” Romans said. “He’s a good horse. I don’t think he liked that muddy track in the Derby. He seems to be a little sensitive to surface.”
Free Drop Billy galloped under regular exercise rider Juan Segundo around 9:30 a.m. on Friday.