Horsin’ Around

The wait is finally over. For the first time in three years, horse racing has a Triple Crown winner. Justify, bred in Kentucky and trained by Bob Baffert, coasted to a Belmont Stakes win on Saturday, June 9, wrapping up his quest for the first Triple Crown since the Baffert-trained American Pharoah’s successful bid way back in 2015.

Call me an old fogey, but I long for the days when Triple Crowns just didn’t happen. After Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978—the third one of the 1970s, mind you—no horse turned the trick until American Pharoah. Over that 37-year stretch, however, 13 different horses won the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but came up short in the Belmont. Those failed bids—and Tom Durkin’s accompanying calls—remain some of the sport’s most exciting moments.

Over that long Triple Crown drought, the feat loomed tantalizingly close but ultimately felt impossible. Would we ever have another Triple Crown winner, many wondered, as the disappointments mounted. Horses aren’t bred to run the testing mile-and-a-half distance of the Belmont, and they aren’t prepared to win three races in roughly a month, they said. Part of the enjoyment of Triple Crown season came from wondering if each new Kentucky Derby winner could finally be the one to break the crownless streak (or in what manner they’d inevitably come up short in the Belmont).

As much as these last two successful Triple Crown runs have been fun and all, it’s time for another decade or two of near-misses and disappointments. Consider the baseball analogy: If American Pharoah was the curse-breaking 2004 Boston Red Sox, then Justify is the 2007 World Champion Red Sox. The scrappy underdog has become the big bully, and everyone’s about had enough already. Okay, maybe not with the horses, but Baffert—a central figure in all of this—suddenly figuring out the Triple Crown formula at age-65 is another story.

Forget a (whitewashed) past of shady behavior, and just focus on the 2018 Belmont. Baffert entered another horse, Restoring Hope, who had little chance to actually win the race. Being a Baffert-trained horse, Restoring Hope wasn’t a complete slouch, of course. He had run third in the Wood Memorial back in April, but finished a disappointing 12th in the Pat Day Mile, a Grade 3, in May. He opened up as a 30-1 longshot and was bumped up to 37.5-1—the longest shot in the field—by the time the betting windows closed. He wasn’t expected to be a factor.

Just running a second horse with a Triple Crown on the line is rare enough. Since the turn of the century and not counting 2018, there have been six Belmont Stakes run with a Triple Crown in the balance (seven if you count I’ll Have Another’s late scratch). In none of those races did the trainer of the TC hopeful run a second horse, and two of the bids were by previous Baffert horses.

When Restoring Hope’s jockey, Florent Geroux, hustled his horse out of the gate, something seemed amiss. Why would Baffert want Restoring Hope to challenge Justify on the front end, ensuring a faster pace? Restoring Hope actually raced all the way to the lead before the first turn, briefly passing his stablemate. He then took that turn wide before finally settling in behind Justify down the backstretch.

It’s possible, of course, that nothing nefarious happened here. Perhaps Geroux just wanted to get a decent position, not expecting his horse to show that much early speed. Perhaps he had trouble settling down Restoring Hope around the turn, angling out to avoid other horses. Perhaps.

Perhaps not. The easier explanation is that Baffert and Co. wanted Restoring Hope near the lead to essentially clear the way for Justify. The main speed horse in this race—and thus the main threat to easy fractions for Justify—was the Todd Pletcher-trained Noble Indy. Outside of the frantic Kentucky Derby, Noble Indy was within 1 ½ lengths of the lead in his four other races, prompting a hot pace in the Louisiana Derby back in March. Given that Pletcher also had the stretch-running (and more likely contender) Vino Rosso entered, Noble Indy certainly posed an obvious speed threat to Justify.

If you watch the replay, you’ll notice Restoring Hope cut off Noble Indy when he goes wide into that first turn. He then cuts off Noble Indy again entering the backstretch. At that point, Noble Indy would have really had to scoot to get to the leaders, so he was content to sit fourth. Bravazo, more of a mid-pack runner, was also satisfied with his spot third on the rail. Restoring Hope had successfully blocked for Justify and lulled the field into thinking the leader was going to get some legitimate pace pressure.

After the early commotion and a hot first fraction of 23.37 seconds, Geroux suddenly got Restoring Hope under control. The result was a lone lead for Justify, and easier fractions for the second (24.74) and third (25.1) quarters. In the end, Justify had plenty left to shrug off half-hearted runs by Vino Rosso and Bravazo. Only European shipper Gronkowski made things interesting late, putting in a rail bid and making Justify run out the final furlong with some purpose.

Who knows what really happened, but it looked like shenanigans either way. Worse, the whole thing could have been avoided by simply doing the obvious: not running Restoring Hope in the race. American Pharoah didn’t need any help to get to the winner’s circle back in 2015, so it’s unclear why Baffert felt he needed another entrant here. The days of Smarty Jones being teamed up on are long over.

What was lost was a chance to see what Justify was really made of. What would have happened had he received actual pace pressure from Noble Indy, then runs from the mid-pack horses, then a final try from Gronkowski? Maybe he would have lost, helping to build toward a more exciting Triple Crown down the road. Maybe he would have won anyway, without the shroud of controversy, cementing a more prominent position in the pantheon of racing greats.

Unfortunately, people got in the way.

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