Sunday, June 17, 2018


The Justify Triple Crown Tour Is On


Yes Virginia, and Kentucky and New York and Maryland and California, there very much is racing life beyond the Triple Crown.

But the burning question that remains is where will Justify run next? The sub-text promoted by cynics was whether he would ever run again.

On the NBCSN telecast from Churchill Downs Saturday night, Bob Baffert told the hosting trio that there definitely are plans for Justify to keep racing.

The two-time Triple Crown-winning Hall of Famer appeared certain if just a tad hesitant before answering--at least that’s what his body language was suggesting.

As to the when, that was a lot trickier. He wants to get the colt back home to Santa Anita for further evaluation. He said all was well with Justify this week but wanted more time.

That is certainly fair in terms of taking the best care of the horse that he can. But that didn’t square with Justify’s body language last night, according to Baffert himself.

The Tour began in Louisville last night and next Saturday, at Santa Anita, there will be another parade and more feting, as there should be for a hometown hero:

A Triple Crown in five weeks; six victories without defeat in a span of 16 weeks. Indeed, a party is warranted.

But if you believe this kind of spacing and travel is not unusual, consider what Brad Cox, who won two stakes on Saturday night’s loaded Churchill program, reacted after Mr. Misunderstood’s Wise Dan victory:

“I think we may have rushed him a bit getting back from the Maker’s 46 at Keeneland. He ran well but I think the three weeks between races was a bit too much...”

Or of shipping, after Ax Man’s defeat at 1-2, Baffert explained the colt’s intemperate pre-race antics: “He’s not a horse that travels well, so he should be better when he gets back home [to Santa Anita].”

Ax Man was making his third start in 69 days after pairing very fast, lifetime- best performances.

I admit to being a bit dubious as to whether there have yet to be any conversations between Baffert and Winstar principal owner Kenny Troutt and CEO/President Elliott Walden regarding Justify’s future.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” said Baffert when asked where and when Justify would run next. Justify’s worth was estimated at $75 million after his history-making feat.

I wouldn’t want to pay those insurance premiums.

A look at the calendar indicates that there are 49 days between the Belmont Stakes and Monmouth’s Haskell, July 29. (I haven’t heard or read any rumors about a $5 million bonus to run at The Shore track).

That’s a ton of money for a struggling venue, even with a new sports betting revenue stream which doesn’t figure to be an immediate economic home run despite reported long lines at the sports-bet queues.

Analyst Randy Moss said to Baffert: “I know where I’ll see you next…I’ll see you at The Shore.” Baffert nodded, but didn’t say who he might be bringing with him.

It certainly won’t be Ax Man. And note that McKinzie is reported back in training. When Baffert announced April 4 that McKinzie would miss the classics, he said "but he'll be ready for the summer."

There are 74 days between the Belmont Stakes and Travers. In terms of potential quality, the Travers is potentially more talent-laden than the Kentucky Derby. Fewer horses but high quality, and late developers, too.

Off the top, if Audible makes the race, and with the Chad Brown duo of Gronkowski and Good Magic, that would guarantee drama will be high.

If Justify comes to Saratoga, it’s unlikely he would create the midweek traffic jam that American Pharoah did three years ago, but one never knows. Certainly the NYRA and the town will pull out all the stops.

Another consideration. In addition to his considerable gifts as a horseman, we know this about Baffert: He hates the rail, can get horses to peak off long layups, and is superstitious.

He’s won the Haskell eight times and the Travers three: Point Given in 2001 and the last two with Arrogate and West Coast. One that got away was the Triple Crown winner of 2015.

Last night at Churchill Downs, Ax Man was defeated at 1-2 while the Dale Romans horses, King Zachary and Tiz Mischief, finished 1-2 in the Matt Winn.

So the 2018 Saratoga question is: Will we see America’s best race horse of any age give Baffert a third straight Travers, or another Romans upset of a Triple Crown winner, or sweet Triple Crown revenge for Brown or Todd Pletcher?

Justify will race again, but the question of when and where probably won’t come for another week or two.

Baffert said last night that when he led Justify around the ring at Churchill Downs last night, the horse acted “like he was waiting for me to put a saddle on him,” that he seemed ready to go.

Justify has demonstrated amazing recuperative powers to match his considerable talent. We’re sure he’s captured the imagination of mainstream sports fans who are waiting to see him do it again.

Lots of pressure, indeed.

The Road to the Breeders’ Cup Has Begun

To date, 14 horses have qualified for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup on the first Saturday in November, including Saturday’s Fleur de Lis and Stephen Foster winners, Blue Prize and Pavel, respectively.

Four more WAYI races are on tap this week at the highly anticipated Royal Ascot race meet, to wit:

The Queen Anne for turf milers on Tuesday; Wednesday’s Prince of Wales for The Turf; Thursday’s Norfolk Stakes for the newly created Juvenile Turf Sprint, and Saturday's Diamond Jubilee for older turf sprinters.

Coverage from Royal Ascot begins Tuesday, through Friday, on the NBCSN network beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Where’s Bobby?


The Breeders' Cup announced Friday that 20 individuals have won election to serve as Breeders' Cup members, 10 are returning members. But the name Bobby Flay did not appear on the list published by Bloodhorse Daily.

Earlier this year, Flay suggested the creation of a new event, the Breeders’ Cup Derby, and for Breeders’ Cup to move its signature event to December so as to escape competition from college football.

The chatter surrounding those proposals was that the ideas were not warmly received.

Written by John Pricci

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Celebrate Justify Now, Legacy Can Wait


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.

image
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.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 10, 2018


All Glory to Justify and Racing, Today and Forever


ELMONT, June 10, 2018--Is this the new age, a reboot of the 1970s when Triple Crown heroes were in ample supply? Nothing for 37 years, now two in the last four?

From the same barn, who took Belmont Day by storm then, followed by an awesome display of firepower in 2017, came out firing on Saturday with defending champion right out of the box with Abel Tasman. Game on!

And I’m thinking about Mike Smith and Bob Baffert and Seattle Slew and Billy Turner and Triple Crown perfection. But without the right Thoroughbred, it’s mere conversation.

June 9, 2018 was a celebration of the racehorse Justify, who proved worthy of the mantle of “greatness” on a warm afternoon in June at Belmont Park.

He is, indeed, very special, a rare specimen, and he’s just so damn handsome. Maybe I resisted embracing him because the nickname ‘Big Red’ was being thrown around so casually, and so often.

I’ve only seen one Big Red, the Triple Crown winner in 1973. Older schoolers I respect say that Citation, the first “Big Red,” was worthy of the sobriquet. I believed them.

But after Secretariat, for me, it was maybe Easy Goer who came the closest.

Or maybe because Seattle Slew, my first and favorite, was such a great personal experience that I wanted him to remain racing history’s only undefeated Triple Crown champion.

Too bad: Justify now has accomplished what only great horses can.

Justify is the 2018 Horse of the Year. He will be tested again, but that title is off the table. And as long as he remains healthy, the task of toppling him will remain extremely tall.

And while Slew lost his first race back after his undefeated sweep, it is doubtful that the connections of Justify will pay him the kind of scheduling disservice that was given Slew.

Racing is more sophisticated today and the breeding industry, while producing fewer horses, may be producing better ones than those of recent generations pre-Pharoah.

Offspring of Justify, when that day inevitably comes, will be invaluable. So far, his management, like his record and the execution of all those who lay their hands on him, has been perfect. His worth post-Belmont has been estimated at $75 million.

But there’s plenty of racing to come, of course. There are Haskells and Travers remaining to be won, an important fall prep, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and what likely would be a career finale worthy of Pegasus himself.

Justify was the best of his generation going into Belmont 150 and the best coming out, overcoming all of the doubters which were many, myself among them.

I allowed that little hitch in his get-along in behind bother me apparently a lot more than it bothers him. Nobody’s perfect except, of course, Justify, untied and unscored upon.

Mike Smith is ageless, having raised his game at an age when most jockeys have retired. Of course it helps when you’re riding the best horse. Alas, he’s not perfect (see Manitoulin’s Manhattan).

But the only thing that matters is Mike Smith is a good man, a humble man who begrudgingly admitted “yes I do belong” in the Hall of Fame now, laughing at himself for saying it while on his way back to the winner’s circle.

And the dedication of the Triple Crown victory to his fellow riders who weren’t as “blessed” as Mike and in fact are disabled permanently, and his prayer for Marlon St. Julien—pitch perfect words for the perfect moment.

Justify, Smith, and the Baffert Triple Crown factory are gifts to racing fans and they should be celebrated; all were mettle-tested by the fire of competition and the challenge of execution. All have been flawless.

This Triple Crown chase was deep with talent and competition from late January through Saturday afternoon and that everyone agreed. Justify beat 35 Classics rivals in all, undeterred by rain, fog or sunshine.

Justify broke like the rocket and took the lead while uncoupled stablemate Restoring Hope, was more of a pulling guard into the first turn, forcing 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, forcing the competition to lose ground to do it. He made Justify’s rivals adjust to their conditions, not the other way around. [NBC aerial view follows]

https://www.nbcsports.com/video/2018-belmont-stakes-aerial-view-justify-wins-triple-crown

This played very well to the leader’s strengths and while some never seriously threatened at any time, three rivals did fire their best shots but none could be described as serious Belmont adversaries approaching the finish line.

The best of them was runnerup Gronkowski for Chad Brown, who had himself a weekend. It was an auspicious dirt-track debut, a bold inside sweep that cut the corner, went after the leader, and finished an excellent, non-threatening second.

Irad Ortiz rode Hofburg as if it were a turf race. It was a brilliant strategy, keeping him covered up but in close range. He fired his best shot but it wasn’t good enough. The colt is still young, still learning, an important divisional member going forward.

For his part, Vino Rosso ran his Wood Memorial race back. It played very well in Queens, but those turns get a lot wider once you cross the Cross Island Parkway. As good as the superfecta horses ran, they were no match.

The die was cast when, eight races earlier, defending champion Abel Tasman broke like a like a lightning bolt beneath Smith and routed five Ogden Phipps rivals by 7-1/2 widening lengths in 1:40.36 for a mile and a sixteenth, the day’s most dominant winner.

Two races later, talented Baffert seven year old handicapper Hoppertunity gave the Belmont crowd a preview of the celebrated mile and a half to come with a perfectly timed run, executed by SoCal star Flavien Prat.

The crème kept rising all day long. Monomoy Girl, the best three year old in America not named Justify, was two lengths the better of up-and-comer Talk Veuve to Me, finishing up a mile in 1:34.10 over the fast, honest surface.

But the day, history, and the game belongs to Justify right now. The folks at Max’s Hot Dogs in Long Branch had better be ready for fire up the grill by Haskell Day, a pre-race Baffert tradition that has resulted in eight victories.

Whether or not Justify shows up at The Shore Track is beside the point for Mr. Baffert. Maybe Wayne Lukas is right. Maybe sculptures ought to start working on a statue of Baffert for outside the gates of Santa Anita.

It is one thing to train Justify, the best horse of his generation, but is quite another to get him to show up in the biggest way six times in 111 days.

As the field was being loaded into the Belmont Stakes starting gate for the 150th time, I turned to Karen Hennegan, wife of John, half of the celebrated documentarian Hennegan Brothers entry, and whispered:

“This never gets old. It’s at times like these when I feel sorry for anyone who just doesn’t get it about horse racing.”

Written by John Pricci

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