Let’s get one crucifixion-inducing opinion out of the way right now: If Justify loses the Belmont Stakes, thus failing to win horse racing’s Triple Crown, there’s a chance I make a LOT of money.
In my heart, I want Justify to channel Secretariat and guzzle the field with the type of performance where he could stop at King Umberto’s for a slice and a Jay Privman handshake going around the first turn, chow down on the backstretch, burp a few times around the far turn, and win by 20. If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Horse racing needs stars, and if Justify can go from an unraced maiden to a Triple Crown winner in less than four months, he’ll ascend to a level few equines of the past century have reached.
From a gambling standpoint, though, I think it’s worth trying to beat him (as I also explained following the Preakness). The old gambling adage says to never bet a horse, as the favorite, to do something it’s never done before. The Belmont will be Justify’s sixth start in less than four months, and it will be contested at the grueling distance of a mile and a half against a sizable field, some of whom are bred up and down for this trip (more on two of them later). His Preakness wasn’t atrocious, but it was certainly a step back from his prior efforts. If he brings his Kentucky Derby form with him Saturday, maybe the race is for second. If he brings his Preakness form, where he edged two longshots by less than a length (one of which he dusted two weeks prior), then the race is much more wide-open than the odds board will say it is.
For those reasons, I think it’s prudent to take a swing against Justify in the Belmont. If Justify wins, I’ll consider my $40 money well-spent to ensure racing’s pantheon of greats opens its doors to another one, and I’ll cheer right along with the racing public. However, if one of the two horses I’m using in the all-stakes Pick Four wins, I stand to make, to quote former TVG colleague Todd Schrupp, racks on racks on racks (hi, Todd!).
We’ll dive into that Pick Four later, but first, we’ll talk about the races that comprise the early Pick Five. I like that sequence, and it’s one where you may be rewarded handsomely even without the presence of big prices. Let’s take a look!
$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1
64 Bets, $32
I don’t have singles on my ticket, and that’s by design. I think many of these races can be whittled down to just two horses, with the second being the most wide-open of the bunch.
I couldn’t get past the two likely favorites in the opener, as #1 LA MONEDA and #6 WAR CANOE look like the ones to beat. The former comes back to turf after a race she probably needed off the long layoff, while the latter outran her 38-1 odds when third in a state-bred stakes race last month and gets class relief here.
The second race is the Easy Goer, which last year was won by eventual champion West Coast. I can’t see a horse in here getting that good by year’s end, but it’s a solid group. #2 MASK looks imposing if you can forgive his clunker in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile, which was in a bog off of a four-month break. I’m using him, but I don’t think he’s any sort of a cinch. #3 RUGBYMAN graduated by a city block last time out, #6 BREAKING THE RULES is 2 for 2 and bred up and down for distance, and #7 DARK VADER comes in off a lifetime-best effort in a classy optional claimer (the third-place finisher came back to win a Cal-bred stakes race).
Race #3 is the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps for older fillies and mares. #6 ABEL TASMAN is a must-use. She’ll be favored and appears to be working with a purpose since her seasonal debut, where she ran fourth in the Grade 1 La Troienne. We know she can handle Belmont, and Bob Baffert may have her fully cranked. However, I also need to use #4 PACIFIC WIND. She’s 2 for 2 since coming to the Chad Brown barn, and one of those wins came in the Grade 2 Ruffian. If you toss out last year’s Grade 2 Bayakoa over a quirky Los Alamitos surface, she’s undefeated on dirt, and I think she could give last year’s Champion 3-Year-Old Filly all she can handle.
The fourth is the Grade 1 Acorn. #3 MONOMOY GIRL may be the shortest-priced favorite on the card, and that includes Justify in the Belmont. She’s emerged as the top 3-year-old filly in the country, but I have enough reservations here to where I cannot single her and move on. I think she’s a two-turn horse, and her lone one-turn race on dirt, while a win, came over a soft field. The other one I need to have on my ticket is #7 TALK VEUVE TO ME, who ran really well when second in the Grade 2 Eight Belles. She was nearly five lengths clear of the third-place finisher that day, and I don’t think this distance will be a problem. The outside post helps her, and she’ll certainly be a playable price.
The payoff leg is the Grade 2 Brooklyn for older horses going a mile and a half. #9 WAR STORY won this race last year and has done tremendous work when placed in the right spots (also known as steering clear of Gun Runner). He was very impressive in this race a season ago, and a repeat effort would make him tough. The only horse I could see beating him is #3 HARD STUDY, who is a perfect 6 for 6 over fast dirt tracks and exits a runaway win in the Flat Out, which serves as Belmont’s local prep for this event.
$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8
80 Bets, $40
Yep, not only am I tossing Justify, but I’m also trying to beat Mind Your Biscuits in the Grade 1 Met Mile. I’ll talk a bit more about that when we get to that race.
The eighth is the Grade 1 Just a Game, and I don’t have a clue. I spread pretty deep in here, and if I could’ve afforded to buy the race, I would have done so. Chad Brown’s got a few strong runners in here, as both #3 OFF LIMITS and #7 A RAVING BEAUTY could win. Depending on how the turf course is playing, though, #4 LULL could be dangerous. She’s the main early speed in this race, and Belmont’s turf course tends to be very kind to horses that are forwardly-positioned. If she’s allowed to dictate terms, she could forget to stop, and if that happens, we’ll start this wager off with a mild upset.
The ninth is the Grade 1 Met Mile, and as mentioned, I’m against #1 MIND YOUR BISCUITS. Yes, he ran a colossal race in Dubai, when he rallied from well back on a track that had been favoring speed for weeks. Having said that, his record at this distance isn’t great. He was second in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile last year, and he ran OK that day, but he actually lost ground to Sharp Azteca late, which isn’t what you want to see from a closer. The rail draw also presents a problem, and it’s not like there’s much early speed signed on.
I’m going four-deep without using that one, and my top pick is a big price on the morning line. That’s #4 MCCRAKEN, who’s perfect at this distance, has been pointed to this race for months by his connections, and could be sitting on a big performance second off of the long layoff. #10 BEE JERSEY seems like the main speed, and #11 AWESOME SLEW never seems to run a bad race, so I had to use them both. Finally, I threw #2 BOLT D’ORO on my ticket as well. If you toss out the Kentucky Derby, where he was not persevered with late, he fits with this group, and he’s been working lights-out at Keeneland since that effort.
I couldn’t get past the two Chad Brown trainees in the 10th, the Grade 1 Manhattan. #1 ROBERT BRUCE and #10 BEACH PATROL look like the best horses in here, and while the former can certainly win, I prefer the latter. The Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs was contested over one of the wettest turf courses we’ve seen over the past several years, and Beach Patrol ran a game second in a race that doubled as his first start in six months while going shorter than he probably wants to go. This trip should be more to his liking, and if he’s fully-cranked, I think he’ll be tough to beat.
This brings us to the Belmont Stakes. You already know that I’m taking a stand against Justify. Instead, I’ll rely on top pick #4 HOFBURG, who’s bred up and down for this trip and had a ton of trouble in the Kentucky Derby, and #8 VINO ROSSO, whose one-paced style and distance-oriented pedigree make him a natural fit for this race. Perhaps they need Justify to regress, but if that happens and this ticket hits, it’s entirely possible we’re looking at a massive score by my modest standards.