Handicapper Ellis Starr’s picks for The Belmont Stakes

Belmont Stakes – Grade 1
Race 11 at Belmont Park
Saturday, June 9 – Post Time 6:46 PM E.T.
One Mile and One Half
Three Year Olds
Purse: $1.5 Million
T.V.: NBC 4 – 7 PM ET

Does Justify Have What It Takes to Win the Belmont, Triple Crown?
By Ellis Starr – National Racing Analyst for Equibase
The 150th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes gives racing fans of all levels the opportunity to witness history for the second time in three years as the unbeaten Justify goes for the Triple Crown. Having won the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in a field of 20 and the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes in a field of eight, Justify faces nine potential spoilers in the grueling mile and one-half test. Four of the other nine horses were soundly beaten in the Derby but it must be noted three of the last five Belmont Stakes winners ran poorly in the Derby, passed the Preakness then won the Belmont.
Foremost among those with a chance to post the upset win is Hofburg, who had an exceptionally rough trip when seventh in the Derby. Vino Rosso (ninth in the Derby), Free Drop Billy (16th) and Noble Indy (17th) are the other three who have been rested since the Run for the Roses. Bravazo and Tenfold ran creditably when second and third, respectively, behind Justify in the Preakness three weeks ago and may have a say in the outcome as well. Blended Citizen will attempt to repeat the feat put in by Tonalist in 2014 when winning the Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes then the Belmont one month later. Gronkowski, a Kentucky bred who has run exclusively in England, has won four races in a row and qualified
to run in the Derby but a slight issue kept him on the sidelines until the Belmont. Restoring Hope enters the Belmont off a after finishing 12th in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile Stakes last month.

Hofburg will be my top choice to win this year’s Belmont and spoil the chances of Justify to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. Hofburg improved considerably as a young, lightly raced horse should when making his first start as a three-year-old in March, earning a 102  Equibase Speed Figure in his first two-turn race. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott believed in the colt’s talents so much that he placed Hofburg in the Florida Derby in only his second start of the year and third career start and the colt did not really disappoint when second with a career-best 107 figure. In the race, having much less experience then eventual winner Audible, Hofburg was eighth of nine with a quarter mile to go when
Audible blew by him but he picked up the tempo and in a flash went from eighth to second. In the Kentucky Derby and when confronted by traffic and trouble he had never encountered previously, Hofburg ran creditably, rallying from 16th to seventh in spite of being bumped at the start, steadied in traffic off another horse’s heels, steadied again and forced to alter his path. Since then Hofburg has been training in the quiet surroundings at Saratoga and should improve off his Florida Derby effort and 107 figure. Considering Justify has earned 108 to 110 figures in his last three races, it will not take much
improvement on the part of Hofburg to run well enough to win the Belmont. Additionally, any concerns about being able to successfully run the mile and one-half distance of the Belmont can quickly be put to rest looking Hofburg’s pedigree and connections. Trainer Mott won the 2010 Belmont with Drosselmeyer while sons of his sire, Tapit – Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017), won three of the last four editions of the race. Belmont Stakes winners in his pedigree do not stop there, as the sire of Hofburg’s dam Soothing Touch is Touch Gold, who won the race in 1997. With 10 fewer horses to deal with in the Belmont compared to the Derby and with likely improvement off his Florida Derby effort,
Hofburg is my pick to win this year’s Belmont Stakes.

Vino Rosso finished ninth in the Derby, skipped the Preakness, and is another poised to improve on his effort prior to the Derby, in this case when winning the Wood Memorial with a career-best 106  figure. In the Derby, Vino Rosso broke last in the field of 20 at the start but ended up ninth, so with 10 fewer horses to pass in the Belmont he should run much better. Taking a few weeks off after the Derby, Vino Rosso returned to trainer Todd Pletcher’s home base in New York and put in a sparkling half-mile workout that was the best of 36 on the day to show he is in top form. In terms of pedigree, there is little doubt Vino Rosso can successfully run a mile and one-half. As a son of Curlin, whose son Palace Malice
won the Belmont in 2013 (for Pletcher), and out of a mare whose sire is Tapit, Vino Rosso should have the stamina to contest the marathon distance without issue and therefore he is a strong candidate to run well enough to win.

Blended Citizen may not have the breeding for the 12 furlong Belmont trip others have but has a good number of factors in favor of running well. Since adding blinkers prior to the Jeff Ruby Steaks in March, Blended Citizen has won two of three races, including the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago with a career-best 110 figure that is as good as the best figure Justify has earned to date. Since shipping to Belmont Park a few weeks ago, Blended Citizen showed a strong liking for the surface with a half-mile workout that was the best of 35 on the day. Furthermore, in recent history horses coming back
from running in the stakes race for three-year-olds at Belmont in the first 10 days of May have done well one month later. In 2010, that race was the Dwyer Stakes which was won by eventual Belmont winner Drosselmeyer (trained by Hofburg’s trainer Bill Mott). In 2014 that race was the Peter Pan Stakes, won by eventual Belmont winner Tonalist. In the Peter Pan, Blended Citizen showed he could race much closer to the early pace than previously thought as he was under two lengths from the leader from just after the start until a quarter mile to run. Although three lengths back with an eighth of a mile to go, Blended Citizen put in a strong late run to draw off late and that running style could serve him very well in the
Belmont Stakes if he races in third or fourth in the early stages.

Anytime a horse is undefeated that is a reason to respect them as it shows not only physical talent but mental toughness and an alpha quality as well. Justify has demonstrated all that and then some in winning all five of his races to date and within a span of 13 weeks. After earning a career-best 110 figure in the Derby, Justify only slightly regressed with a 109 figure effort in the Preakness on a rain-soaked track but in that race he did show evidence of racing a lot in a short period of time as Bravazo was gaining with every stride in the final yards, the word “lasted” in the chart callers comment very apropos to the end of the race. Since the Preakness, Justify put in a very fast half-mile workout that was the best of 43 on
the day so evidently he is still in top shape, but running the mile and one-half of the Belmont is a whole different matter compared to the Derby and to the Preakness. The good news for Justify’s chances of winning the Belmont and the Triple Crown is he may be able to dictate the tempo in the race as it is likely jockey Mike Smith will use the colt’s early speed to be in front at the start or at the least, in second shortly after the gate opens. Additionally, trainer Bob Baffert is a master at getting a horse to hold his form as a query from Stats Race Lens yields a remarkable record of 43 for 93 for Baffert in dirt route races over the last few years when his horse won its previous start. On the other hand, I can find little in Justify’s
pedigree similar to the pedigree of either Hofburg or Vino Rosso in terms of siblings, sires or other relatives who have run well at the distance of the Belmont. Horses have won the Belmont in the past on raw talent alone and that may be the case with Justify, who I will be rooting for in my heart but betting against with my money.

Bravazo raced fairly close up when third in the early stages of the Preakness then dropped back to fifth on the turn, giving every indication he had nothing left to offer. Maybe it was the mud in his face or some other factor that caused him to lose interest or momentum, but with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Bravazo found new life and energy, surging in the final yards to miss by a half-length. As I had explained in my Preakness analysis, with 12 fewer horses in the Preakness compared to the Derby, I felt Bravazo would rebound to the form shown when winning the Risen Star Stakes in February with a career-best 110 figure and he nearly did, earning a 108 figure. Since the Preakness, four-time Belmont winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas put Bravazo through a mile workout in preparation for the race, knowing if nothing else he
wanted the colt to have the stamina to contest the mile and one-half. Likely to be fairly close up to the early pacesetters in the Belmont, Bravazo should be putting in a strong late run just as others are feeling the effects of running a distance they have never run previously and that gives the colt a square shot at posting the upset win.

Tenfold, like Hofburg, has only run four times. His best effort came three weeks ago when rallying for third in the Preakness to earn a career-best 108 figure. As a son of Curlin, who not only sired 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice but also 2017 Belmont runner-up Irish War Cry and 2016 Rags to Riches Invitational Stakes winner Theogony, and as a grandson of Tapit, there is little doubt Tenfold has the breeding to run well at the distance. There certainly is room to improve off his Preakness effort so on that count Tenfold must be considered a contender. On the other hand, with the exception of American Pharoah, recent Preakness runners who have run in the Belmont haven’t fared that well, most
notably 2014 Preakness winner California Chrome (fourth) and 2013 winner Oxbow (second). It just could be coming back on three weeks rest is too much to ask a young horse, but then again Tenfold could have gas left in the tank as he only ran three times prior to the Preakness and if that is the case he could certainly be in the hunt in the final stages of the Belmont.

The rest of the Belmont Stakes field, with their best  Equibase
Speed Figures, is Free Drop Billy (102), Gronkowski
(104), Noble Indy (106) and Restoring Hope (108).

Win Contenders, in probability order:
Hofburg
Vino Rosso
Blended Citizen
Justify
Bravazo
Tenfold
You can get Ellis’ entire Belmont Stakes Day selections and analysis at Equibase.com