March 25, 2019

Justify’s rail post dictates front-running tactics in Belmont Stakes

Justify put the finishing touches on his Belmont Stakes preparations when breezing 5-furlongs at Churchill Downs on Monday (c) Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com

Justify was already facing the most demanding task in American Thoroughbred racing and Tuesday’s post position draw for Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes left something else to worry about. The unbeaten colt received the rail post in a 10-horse field.

That leaves only one way to go for jockey Mike Smith and it’s on the lead.

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A wire-to-wire winner in multiple starts, Justify has proven anything but one-dimensional, settling perfectly just off the early lead in his Kentucky Derby victory. And Smith would’ve had options with the versatile colt from a middle or outside starting spot. The one thing Justify’s never had to deal with is racing behind horses, taking kickback and biding his time in traffic, and it’s unrealistic to think connections will suddenly try something new with a Triple Crown on the line.

Barring a disastrous break in the 1 ½-mile classic, Justify will be sent straight to the front. And then it becomes a matter of “catch me if you can.”

Only 12 horses have won the American Triple Crown and Justify is trained by Bob Baffert, who snapped a 37-year drought with American Pharoah in 2015. Justify has the same running style as American Pharoah (front-running type with tractability) and the last thing Baffert wants to do is tip his hand. He never spoke about American Pharoah possibly leading wire-to-wire, speculating openly about having a target in the Belmont Stakes, and has followed the same game plan with Justify.

American Pharoah eliminated any suspense by sprinting forward at the start and was never seriously challenged leading every step of the way in the Belmont Stakes.

Baffert has referenced stablemate Restoring Hope as a possible pacesetter for Justify, and others will point to Noble Indy (who is trained by Todd Pletcher but shares common ownership with Justify), but does anybody believe those horses are going to pass over in front Justify during the opening stages? They won’t be dueling head-and-head either; Baffert and Pletcher want to keep training horses for WinStar.

The Hall of Fame trainer can handicap the rest of the Belmont Stakes field. None of Justify’s rivals are need-the-lead types. None possess his high cruising speed. None appear capable of playing the same role Good Magic did in the Preakness. And all will be chasing the 4-5 morning line favorite as Justify shows the way into the first turn of the Belmont Stakes.

The Belmont Stakes will be the third hard race in a five-week window and the 1 ½-mile distance remains a daunting challenge. If Justify is good enough, he’ll lead wire-to-wire on Saturday.