John Clay

With Triple Crown on the line, WinStar's Belmont decision makes dollars and sense

Watch Justify, who's up for a Triple Crown, train at Churchill Downs

Justify gallops on Saturday, May 26, 2018, training two weeks before he will race the Belmont.
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Justify gallops on Saturday, May 26, 2018, training two weeks before he will race the Belmont.

Hey, the Belmont Stakes is a grind of a race. A long, long grind of a race. A ridiculously long race. At a mile-and-a-half, the third jewel of the Triple Crown is the longest distance its entrants will run in their horse racing careers. No wonder it is called "The Test of Champions."

So that's one more reason not to come down too hard on WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing for indicating Friday they will not run their colt Audible against Justify in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.

The partnership owns both horses. Todd Pletcher trains Audible, who won the Florida Derby before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. Bob Baffert trains Justify, who won the Kentucky Derby in the slop and the Preakness in the fog and who could be the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner if he proves victorious in two weeks.

Is Justify's path easier with Audible out of the race? Absolutely.

Did business have something to do with WinStar and its partners' decision to not run one of its top three-year-olds against the other other with a Triple Crown on the line? Of course.

And no one should blame them considering reports this past week WinStar has a deal to sell Justify's breeding rights to Coolmore for $60 million. According to Yahoo Sports, there's a $15 million bonus if Justify wins the Triple Crown. Horse racing, after all, is a business endeavor. And not a cheap one.

Will Audible's absence taint Justify's Triple Crown if he accomplishes that feat? Yes and no. In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. This will be the 150th Belmont Stakes. In the previous 149, only 12 horses have managed to sweep the Triple Crown. There will not be an asterisk by Justify's name.

Besides, even without Audible, the son of Scat Daddy figures to face a strong Belmont field, expected to include Bravazo, who finished second by just a half-length in the Preakness; Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso; Peter Pan Stakes winner Blended Citizen and trainer Bill Mott's lightly-raced but promising Hofburg, who finished seventh in the Derby.

A noted no-show will be My Boy Jack, who gained favor with the bettors in the Kentucky Derby -- his odds dropped from 30-1 in the Morning Line to 6-1 at post-time — before finishing a hard-charging fifth. After skipping the Preakness, My Boy Jack was expected to be a Belmont favorite considering the distance.

Instead, his connections tweeted Wednesday that Keeneland's Lexington Stakes winner, trained by Keith Desormeaux and owned by Don't Tell My Wife Stables, would use the Belmont Derby in July to prepare for the Haskell and the Travers.

Meanwhile, Pletcher offered similar reasoning for keeping Audible out of the Belmont, telling the Daily Racing Form, "I don't feel like he's doing quite as well as he was leading into the Derby. . . I don't feel like he's where he needs to be to feel like he's going to win the Belmont."

Pletcher knows of what he speaks. He's won the Belmont three times, including last year with Tapwrit. He is also expected to have a pair of entries this year in Vino Rosso and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy, both of whom include native New Yorker Mike Repole as an owner. In Noble Indy's case, Repole owns the colt along with, yes, WinStar.

On the one hand, going by his 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Noble Indy is not the threat that Audible would have been in the Belmont. On the other hand, Noble Indy may not have liked the sloppy Churchill Down surface on May 5. He may do better on a dry Belmont track.

Besides, any owner who enters a horse in the Belmont does so with some amount of risk. Four of the last 10 Belmont winners — Da'Tara (2008), Union Rags (2012), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017) — have not or did not win another race. Ruler on Ice, the 2011 winner, raced 15 more times with just an allowance victory to his credit. A mile and a half is a long way to go.

Justify hasn't won the Belmont and the Triple Crown just yet. If he does, he'll deserve it.

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