This is the calm before the storm. Soon, the frenzy will begin and will do so in earnest. Three years ago, American Pharoah captured horse racing’s Triple Crown and, now, another Bob Baffert trained colt has the chance to do the same.
For Baffert, this isn’t a big deal. Of all the trainers in the game, he seems to be best at preparing horses for the grind of the Triple Crown. This is the fifth time since 1997 that he has brought a horse to Belmont with a shot at immortality.
In today’s game, some trainers shy away from the Triple Crown. Todd Pletcher wins the most races, but he has never loved running his horses back in the Preakness. Bill Mott likes to develop his horses for races later in the year, as does Shug McGaughey. Chad Brown is relatively new on the national scene but early indications tell us he likes the Triple Crown trail. Besides Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, the old man at 82, seems to fully embrace preparing horses for the grind that is the Triple Crown.
Horse racing is a bettor’s sport. For the next three weeks, there will be two camps — those who want to see another Triple Crown and those that refer to themselves as “Wise Guys”. The Wise Guys will look for a way to beat Justify at Belmont Park on June 9.
How good is Justify? He looked great in the Kentucky Derby, winning with ease. He stalked the pace the entire time and, when it was time to pull away, he did so. In the Preakness, he got hooked (looked in the eye) and even though many say he looked tired, he found the resolve to pull away and win once again.
We all know that the Belmont is the “Test of the Champion”. Belmont Park, nicknamed Big Sandy, does not yield easily. She will give a horse respect, but they have to earn it and she has been known to eat up horses that are great, but not super. We saw her do this many times since 1978 and even before that. The best example was in 2004, when undefeated Smarty Jones came to the Belmont with the Crown on the line. There were 120,000 people on the grounds and most thought this would be the day that the then 26-year drought would end.
Big Sandy had other ideas. There were many who thought that Smarty Jones might not like 1 ½ miles and Big Sandy was one of them. She was waiting and, in the last quarter of a mile, she swallowed the little colt up, allowing Birdstone to sneak through for the win. Smarty Jones was a better horse than Birdstone, but Big Sandy only allows superhorses to win Triple Crowns.
If that was a late-round knockout, then her conquest of Big Brown in 2008 was a four-round badgering as she delivered a stunning blow before the Rick Dutrow colt passed six furlongs. We all remember jockey Kent Desormeaux in effect yelling “no mas” well before the end of the race.
Before American Pharoah, there was California Chrome. He was a great horse and went on to do great things after the Belmont, but Big Sandy did not think he was a superhorse. He tired in the stretch and finished fourth to Tonalist, the horse who had won at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks prior to The Test of the Champion.
American Pharoah did not bring Big Sandy to her knees, but his Belmont win showed everybody the right way to tame her. He had nearly identical splits — 1:13.41 for the first half and 1:13.15 for the second — that earned her respect. The way to beat Big Sandy is to stay near the lead and stalk. Big Sandy usually dismisses frontrunning speed horses — and closers have never had much luck either. Pharoah looked her in the eye and said, “Let’s go!”
In the end, the old track nodded in acknowledgement, granting Pharoah superhorse status.
Justify certainly has the running style to win Big Sandy’s respect. Did he look tired in the Preakness? I can’t say, because, like most, I watched the race on TV and we know that horses don’t give interviews after the race is over.
The trainer’s job is to get the horse to peak. The peak can only last so long. Some horses peak at the Kentucky Derby and, right after, they start their decline. Nyquist peaked at the Derby and was not able to maintain it.
It looks like Justify peaked at the Derby and then held it for the Preakness. The question is simple: Can he hold that peak for one more race or has his peak passed? If his peak has passed, he will get buried just like Big Brown, Funny Cide and War Emblem did.
The Wise Guys will tell you that he is past his peak; they will say he was past it in the Preakness. Others will say that he can hold it once more and achieve that legendary status that goes with being a Triple Crown winner.
Justify has less than three weeks to prepare and his connections will do all they can to get that done, because Big Sandy is also gearing up and she has the experience. A horse gets one chance to run the Belmont; for Big Sandy, this will be her 150th.
She will be ready to cast Justify aside like she has with so many others in the past. Justify will have his work cut out for him on June 9.