ELMONT, NY, June 12, 2018--Ultimately, it will be history—and the remainder of this season—that will more clearly define Justify’s place in the pantheon of the sport’s greatest equines. But we know plenty already.

The three races in five weeks is but a part of the latest wonder horse’s story. Rather, it’s more about Apollo and the six-race career that began 111 days before he passed the champion’s test and raced into history.

And it wasn’t very long before Triple Crown newbies and racing’s loyalists began whispering the name Travers. Some people say “not so fast, his appearance in Saratoga is no slam dunk.” And that’s true.

His absence from the Travers, whether Mr. Baffert tries to win his ninth Haskell as prelude, would be aesthetically unacceptable; unforgivable from a sporting perspective.

But then Mr. Baffert does have McKinzie and Ax Man at the ready. Arrogate, anyone?

Before Belmont keystrokes were archived by Sunday evening, Justify’s value already was being estimated at $75 million. Barring the tragic unforeseen, there’s nothing to lose in Saratoga; his post-race future is already secure.

Racing fans will demand to see this kind of perfection from Justify more and more and maybe next time no blocking back will be required. Yet it will be another herculean challenge.

The ability to beat a healthy Audible, the exciting new challenger Gronkowski and a fresh defending champion, Good Magic, along with the rest of the best of Justify’s Classics rivals, is a race even casual sports fans will want to see.

It’s very early in the summer season so everyone needs to take a breath, including Justify, who deserves the next several weeks just being a horse. All he needs in the Belmont aftermath are those closest to keep loving on him.

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Photo by @SHAMIAMNOT

UNCOUPLED FALLOUT


The irony that Mike Repole--a significant partner in Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, the latter with Winstar Farm the former with the St. Elias group--would complain about the use of an uncoupled entry is just misplaced frustration.

This is especially so since he confided to some pre-race that Noble Indy would act as a pace-pressing rabbit. His complaint, then, was about a tack he hoped to use against Justify. Instead, Restoring Hope flipped the script.

From HRI’s Sunday morning’s On The Line column:

“Justify broke like a rocket and took the lead while uncoupled stablemate Restoring Hope, more of a pulling guard approaching the first turn, forced any would-be pace pressers out into the wide expanse of Big Sandy.

“Down the backside, ‘Hope’ became a blocking back, applying moderate pressure, backing off a bit after a fast opening quarter-mile. Of greater import, they made Justify’s rivals adjust to them, not the other way around.”

When Restoring Hope broke a half-beat slow, Florent Geroux quarter-horsed him into contention. The problem was when he reached the clubhouse turn, he turned right, not left. Poorly executed, unless that was the intent.

But this is all conversation: The best horse--one already a horse for the ages executing a ground-breaking modern Triple Crown campaign--won, beating 35 rivals in five weeks to do it.

Justify’s greatest strength, in light of his 16.3 hands height and 1,380 pound frame, is that not only is he very fast but is extremely light on his feet; how he glibly handles any footing. He’s push-button, as the horsemen say.

Baffert would never dare to compare his children, but we’ll posit that American Pharoah had the more perfect gait but that Justify is the stronger, more gifted specimen. Nice comparison problem to have.

So, hopefully, it’s on to the Travers where the competitive waters figure to get even steeper.

TRULY HAPPY FOR MIKE SMITH, BUT NOBODY’S PERFECT

Mike Smith has been “Money Mike” long before this point in time. Prior to an injury that stopped his career cold two decades ago, he always had a knack for winning the big ones—and not by riding the “best horse” as he does now.

As good as Smith was in the Belmont, that’s how awful he was an hour earlier in the $1 million Woodford Reserve Manhattan at 1-1/4 miles on Belmont Park’s inner turf course.

Sour grapes at 30-1? You bet! But don’t take our word. The following is an excerpt from the official Equibase chart:

“…MANITOULIN hit the near side stall at the start conceding half a length to the front, raced four to five wide through the opening bend, in aim of the front before racing six or seven paths off the inside down the backstretch just off the pace, advanced to vie into the far turn, tucked four wide, came four wide into the upper stretch, rallied willingly to knock heads through the final eighth, but was just bested at the end by a trio…”

Well, that about gets it all, especially considering he finished fourth, the losing margins being a neck, a neck, and a neck. Thinking he was “probably best” is not much of a reach as fact.

HERETICAL DOCTRINE

Selfishly, I admit to liking the idea of a Belmont Stakes crowd being capped at 90,000. People who pay high prices to attend--$40 to park for openers--should expect a modicum of comfort wherever they land in the big ballpark.

BELMONT STAKES FESTIVAL AS GOOD AS RACING GETS


Every Memorial Day, I lament the absence of the Metropolitan Handicap; it was so much a part of my early racetracking while growing up in Queens. But getting a chance to see the race live on the Belmont program was a real treat.

Without exaggeration, Saturday’s Belmont Park card was the best Saturday of racing not named Breeders’ Cup Classic day. All but one of the big Grade 1 horses failed to show up; Beach Patrol in the Manhattan.

But Abel Tasman came back, returning in a big, big way. And Monomoy Girl continued her Grade 1 march through the three-year-old filly division, proving almost impossible to beat in Eclipse Award balloting this winter.

A new star was born: Bee Jersey, owned and bred by Charles Fipke—what a decade he’s having—brought a winning streak into Belmont Park and announced himself to the world in the Met Mile under clever Ricardo Santana rating.

The wonderfully, cool New York-bred, Mind Your Biscuits, made him earn the victory right to the last jump, bless his generous heart.

And what can one say about Disco Partner; enter a turf sprint and win, over and over again.

Still Having Fun parlayed an excellent placing to supersonic Mitole in the Chick Lang into a stout-finish victory made possible by an excruciating early Woody Stephens pace.

And bless Promises Fulfilled who repelled challenges for holding on as well after a pressurized killer gambit of 21.46 43.68 but staying on for third after perfect tripping Engage sidled up at the sixteenth pole.

It was a great show all day long and an aesthetic and financial success as well. Over 15.3 million viewers saw Belmont150 live on NBC, while 12.7 million fans watched a “full race portion” between NBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

The $137,954,895 wagered on Saturday's 13-race card is the second-highest single-day handle total in New York Racing Association history, behind only the $151,109,373 wagered on the 2014 Belmont program.

All-sources handle for the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival-- Thursday, Friday and Saturday--was $168,975,295, up 35% year over year. The racing office, et al, deserve extremely high marks for concocting this confection.