Justify bids for Triple Crown glory in American Pharoah's looming shadow
Preview: USA, Saturday 11.46 BST (live on At The Races)
Belmont Park: Belmont Stakes (Grade 1) 1m4f | dirt | 3yo
Three years since a Triple Crown winner. It doesn't have quite the same ring to it as in 2015, when American Pharoah ended a 37-year wait since the last winner of the Holy Grail of American horseracing, a run of such length that some had grown to believe there would never be a Triple Crown champion again.
Now striking chestnut colt Justify, trained like American Pharoah by Bob Baffert, is just an evens favourite to land the Belmont. It almost feels as if becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown is a simple task.
The weight of history has gone, but with it too has vanished much of the anticipation which made American Pharoah's run for for the crown three years ago so momentous and joyous.That is not to say what happens at Belmont on Saturday is any less important. The Triple Crown is still the pinnacle of US racing, still a challenge conquered by a mere 12 champions, among them some of the most famous names in racing history – War Admiral, Secretariat, Seattle Slew – but what is lacking is the same desperate yearning for the streak to be broken at long last, a desperation borne of 37 years of disappointment, bad luck and downright failure.
If Justify does win so hot on the heels of American Pharoah it would echo the 1970s, when in the space of five years three horses completed the Triple Crown.
But it is easy to forget that before the 37-year wait that followed Affirmed in 1978, there was the 25-year wait that followed Citation in 1948. Landing the Triple Crown isn't considered one of the most difficult feats in sport for nothing.
TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS
Sir Barton (1919)
Gallant Fox (1930)
War Admiral (1937)
Count Fleet (1943)
Seattle Slew (1977)
American Pharoah (2015)
Saturday's task may not prove as easy as Justify's dominant odds suggest. He is unbeaten in five stars, but only just held off the closers in the Preakness, held at a rain-soaked Pimlico three weeks ago.
He, like every aspirant to the Triple Crown, must also cope with the burden of three hard races in little over a month, while his rivals, including main threat Hofburg, have had the luxury of longer breaks between races. He is also tackling a mile and a half for the first time and has drawn the feared stall one.
"He has to break well," said Baffert. "I remember Pharoah was in the gate and he stepped back right when it opened, and he broke about a length off. He [Victor Espinoza] hustled him immediately, but that could have been bad. He could have stumbled or somebody could have cut him off.
"I always worry about the break. The break is so important. After that, you have to let it happen. I feel good that he's doing well. He looks great. Physically, he looks healthy. He's moving well. That's all you can ask for.
"He's a seasoned horse now. He's had those five races. I can just tell he's more professional. He's been shipped around, been in some tough fights, he handles it well. I like our spot. He's basically just run himself into shape."
Baffert, who will leg up 52-year-old Mike Smith, added: "Let's see if he can do it. He came out of nowhere, and now he's picking up steam. People say, 'Oh, he's so beautiful. What a beautiful horse.' He's become a rock star, like Pharoah, so let's see if he can do it."
Among Justify's rivals is the former Jeremy Noseda-trained Gronkowski, who is having his first run for Chad Brown.
He had been due to contest the Kentucky Derby under Noseda's tenure but spiked a fever a few days before he was due to travel.
What they say
D Wayne Lukas, trainer of Bravazo
This horse is pretty tough. We're taking on Goliath, you know. This is not the junior prom we're dealing with. We're going to have a tough chore. I don't see any chinks in the armour. I think we had a chance to beat Justify in the Preakness. Now he's going to be really tough. I think it's a lot tougher order to beat him now.
We've had a nice amount of time to recover from the Derby, which probably makes it a bigger challenge for Justify. I don't think there's any doubt about it. We didn't hit the board in the Derby and didn't see any big advantage to running in the Preakness. We just pointed for the Belmont. We have to do what's best for us, and that's what we did.
Chad Brown, trainer of Gronkowski
This horse hasn't put a foot wrong since he's arrived. He's a real classy horse and came to me [from Jeremy Noseda] in outstanding condition. Based on his two workouts he's made to go a mile and a half on the dirt to me. In a perfect world I wish I'd had him longer and had a better handle on the horse, but it is what it is and I'm fortunate to be in this position to go there with a chance to win.
Steve Asmussen, trainer of Tenfold
We're very excited about his chances. He's in a really nice rhythm, I feel he's 100 per cent and really like his state of mind going into this. He's always been very talented and he's a lightly raced horse; he's had four races. I think his Preakness run solidified his quality. The fact he's continued to train well since has a lot of people talking about him that weren't before. He went into the Preakness the longest shot on the board [at 26-1], and I don't think that will happen in the Belmont.
I think, like all of us, we need Justify to wake up on the wrong side of the bed to have a chance. Both of these horses had a pedigree to suggest they can handle it. Both of them have that training style about them where they show good stamina in their gallops, good rhythms in their gallops and also have been successful at winning races at a mile and a eighth [nine furlongs] already.
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