Justify bidding for rare Triple Crown sweep in Belmont

Justify bidding for rare Triple Crown sweep in Belmont
The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Three races at various distances on three different tracks over a span of five weeks.

Just 12 horses have swept the Triple Crown, one of the rarest feats in sports.

Justify will try to immortalize his name and join such horses as Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Citation and Secretariat when he runs in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has been guided to this point by a couple of veterans: trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith. Baffert oversaw American Pharoah’s Triple Crown success in 2015 and has used the same methods with Justify. Smith has never been aboard a Triple Crown winner, but at 52 he has the shrewdness and knowledge from regularly riding at Belmont Park years ago to rely on.

The forecast calls for a slight chance of late-day rain with a high near 80 at the scheduled post of 6:46 p.m. ET. A crowd capped at 90,000 is expected for a chance to witness history.

Justify opened his bid with a 2 ½-length victory on a sloppy track in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 5. He followed it up with a half-length win in the slop in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness on May 19.

Here are some things to know for the 150th Belmont Stakes:

THE DISTANCE

The Belmont is known as the “Test of the Champion” for good reason: it’s the first and likely last time these 3-year-old colts will be running 1 ½ miles. That distance isn’t widely raced in North America and it calls for a combination of stamina and speed. For horses used to training and running at shorter distances it can be like asking them to start over doing something completely different. Often it’s the final quarter-mile that does in a contender. Once the horses come out of the final turn, they’ve still got a 1,097-yard (1,003 meters) run through the stretch, exhausting for a horse with little or no gas left in the tank. Belmont Park’s deep, sandy surface can prove tiring, too. If rain falls and turns it sloppy, Justify should feel right at home. Justify might not need to run his absolute best if his rivals struggle to cope with the longer trip. Horses whose pedigrees are based on speed rather than stamina are unlikely to run their best, never mind improve, going 1 ½ miles.

FRESH HORSES

No Triple Crown winner has faced more than seven rivals in the Belmont, so Justify could be the first. He’ll have nine horses to contend with. Justify and Bravazo will be the only horses to run in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Bravazo finished sixth in the Derby and closed with a rush to take second in the Preakness. Four of Justify’s rivals have been resting since the Kentucky Derby a month ago: Free Drop Billy (16th), Hofburg (seventh), Noble Indy (17th) and Vino Rosso (ninth). Coming off a three-week break is Blended Citizen. He’s the only horse with experience racing at Belmont Park, having won the Peter Pan there on May 12. The most rested entry is Gronkowski, having last run on March 30 in England. The colt named for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski brings a four-race winning streak into his U.S. debut. Besides Bravazo, the only other Preakness horse to take on Justify again is Tenfold. He also made a late charge to grab third in that race. Restoring Hope, who like Justify is trained by Baffert, last ran May 5 but not in the Derby. He finished 12th that day in the Pat Day Mile on the undercard at Churchill Downs. Restoring Hope will have a new jockey Saturday since Smith will be busy riding Justify.

POST POSITION

Justify will break from the No. 1 post in the starting gate. A leading 23 Belmont winners have come out of there, including Secretariat. His performance in the 1973 race set a standard that has yet to be matched. Secretariat won by 31 lengths in a record time of 2:24. Saturday’s race will be run 45 years to the day that Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought.

BUNCHES OF TRIPLES

If Justify succeeds in sweeping the Triple Crown just three years after American Pharoah, it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened close together. Gallant Fox, Omaha and War Admiral accomplished the feat in the 1930s. The 1940s saw Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation achieve racing immortality. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed added their names to the list in the 1970s.

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