Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) victor JUSTIFY galloped 1 1/8 miles and schooled in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Friday, nearly one week before the unbeaten colt will take part in the 150th Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 9 at Belmont Park. As usual, exercise rider Humberto Gomez was aboard.
“He’s just breathing fire out there,” assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said. “You can tell he’s feeling full of himself. He’s happy with what he’s doing and that’s most important. He is getting fitter and fitter each day. He has a solid foundation under him now and I think he’s ready to take the big step forward.
“We chose today to be our gate day just because the track was a little on the firmer side,” Barnes said of Churchill’s sealed surface. “We didn’t want to do too much with track conditions. With him working this coming week, we weren’t really going to have a chance to get back up to the gate.”
Expected to join him on that flight is fellow Bob Baffert trainee and Belmont Stakes hopeful RESTORING HOPE. The Grade 2-placed sophomore galloped 1 1/2 miles on Friday under the Twin Spires and stood in the starting gate in the mile chute in his own preparation for the “Test of the Champion.”
“He’s fresh, happy, very good energy,” Barnes said of Restoring Hope.
According to Barnes, both Justify and Restoring Hope are scheduled to gallop on Saturday and Sunday, breeze Monday and fly to New York on Wednesday.
Justify has been attracting a crowd of viewers to watch his morning exercise, and on Friday Elliott Walden, president and CEO of co-owner WinStar Farm, joined the gathering.
“He’s really doing well,” Walden said. “Couldn’t be happier with the way he’s doing. We’ve got eight days to go. Like Bob said when he worked the other day, it was almost like, ‘Man, I wish it were this weekend and not next.’ We’re in a waiting game, just hoping every day goes as well as today.
“Winning the Derby, to me, I can’t imagine it getting any better than that. But we’ll see what the Triple Crown would feel like,” he continued. “It’s still pretty calm. I think next week it will get turned up to another level. Because with the Derby there are 20 horses taking focus, probably five or six that you guys (in the media) focus on. When you come into a Triple Crown, I think 80 percent of the attention will be on Justify. So it will be pretty crazy next week. But I don’t see it as any different than trying to win the Derby, I really don’t.”
Triple Crown sweep or not, Walden believes Justify’s talent has already been proven.
“He’s obviously the best of the generation, I think he’s proven that,” he said. “So I think (the Belmont is) his race to lose. Now having said that, there are plenty of great horses who have lost the Belmont. He’s not cinch by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s a horse with extreme talent, and I think that’s his biggest attribute. He’s a better horse than these horses right now.
“With that being said, the three weeks, how will that play into it? The mile and a half, how will that play into it? The great thing about the Triple Crown is there are always these variables. That’s what makes horse racing great, and while there will be 10, 12 horses to load up against him to try to beat him. That’s what it’s all about.”
Walden also watched Winchell Thoroughbreds’ homebred TENFOLD gallop two miles on Friday during Churchill’s special 7:30-7:40 a.m. training period set aside for horses readying for the Belmont Stakes.
“Tenfold looks great,” he said. “I was up at Saratoga last week and Hofburg looks well. It’s going to be a great race.”
Tenfold, third in the Preakness in just his fourth career start last out, had exercise rider Angel Garcia aboard for the gallop. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Curlin is scheduled to breeze five furlongs Saturday at Churchill and fly to New York on Tuesday.
“The horse galloped good,” assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. “I was really happy with him. He just looks like he’s got a bloom to him. I really liked his gallop today a lot.”
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. has piloted Tenfold in all but one of his four lifetime starts, and was full of praise for the colt’s Preakness effort.
“The horse ran a really good race,” said Santana, who is expected to have the Belmont call on Tenfold. “Steve told me since the first day that the horse was special for him. We had a lot of confidence that he was going to run a good race. He was acting really professional. He took the dirt (in his face) pretty good. He’s an amazing horse. He does everything right. We were in a great spot. I was a little worried how the track was, because it was pretty muddy. But the horse was like he didn’t care.
“Turning for home, my horse gave me everything he had. He got a little tired. I think if he had run one more race, we had a pretty good chance to beat Justify. I think in the Belmont my horse is going to run a very tough race.”
Also galloping at Churchill Downs on Friday was Grade 1 scorer FREE DROP BILLY, who covered 1 1/2 miles for conditioner Dale Romans.
Grade 2 hero and Preakness runner-up BRAVAZO walked the shedrow on Friday, one day after breezing a mile in 1:42.60 over Churchill’s fast main track for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“In that race, I think we could have beaten (Justify), if everything was perfect,” Lukas said of Bravazo’s Preakness run. “But (Justify) still won the race, so be it. But I think as that one turned out, we had a chance to beat him. The next one will be a whole different deal. It just means you better put us in the superfecta.”
The field for the 2018 Belmont Stakes will be drawn Tuesday evening. Expected to show up in the drawing are (in alphabetical order with jockeys): Bandua (TBD), Blended Citizen (Kyle Frey), Bravazo (Luis Saez), Free Drop Billy (Robby Albarado), Gronkowski (Jose Ortiz), Hofburg (Irad Ortiz Jr.), Justify (Mike Smith), Noble Indy (Javier Castellano), Restoring Hope (Florent Geroux), Seahenge (Ryan Moore), Tenfold (Ricardo Santana Jr.) and Vino Rosso (John Velazquez).