The Belmont Stakes strategy was fairly obvious before the post positions were drawn at Citi Field in New York on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. It became completely obvious when unbeaten Justify drew the 1 post for Saturday’s mile-and-a-half race with the Triple Crown on the line.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has the race’s most early speed. He is the best horse. The absolute last thing you want to do with the best horse is to take his best attribute away from him, so expect jockey Mike Smith to put Justify on the lead from the start and try to tire out the other nine horses chasing him.
If, for some reason, any other jockeys are intent on sending their horses to the front, they will have to go quite fast to get there in front of Justify. Then, Smith can find a good position and wait until he senses it is time to try to break the race open.
In a perfect world, Smith and trainer Bob Baffert would rather have seen Justify draw nearer the outside, which would give the jockey more options. But it really should not be an issue unless Justify breaks very poorly. That no speed Free Drop Billy drew next door means Justify should have immediate room to maneuver.
Justify was listed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite, which seems high after he was 2-5 in the Preakness. But after winning the Preakness by only a half length, there is, at least, some sense of vulnerability. And this appears to be a stronger field than the Preakness.
Bravazo and Tenfold, second and third in the Preakness, are back to try again. Hofburg, seventh in the Derby but clearly compromised by major traffic issues, skipped the Preakness and appears poised for a giant effort in the Belmont. According to jockey John Velazquez, Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso hated the sloppy track in the Derby when ninth. He also passed the Preakness and almost certainly will run much better Saturday than he did on May 5.
Hofburg, a son of superstar sire Tapit, was listed as second choice at 9-2, even though he has won just one race. It is a sign of respect for his trainer, Bill Mott, and Tapit, the sire of three of the last four Belmont winners. Bravazo and Vino Rosso were listed as co-third choices at 8-1.
The most likely race scenario is for Justify to set moderate fractions as American Pharoah did in 2015 and win wire-to-wire. In fact, the last five Triple Crown winners — Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah — won the Belmont in exactly the same way, leading at every call.