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Wartime's Count Fleet, deserving of racing's Purple Heart if it had one. Says-it-right-here Citation, the first Million Dollar Baby. Penny Chenery's authoritatively named Secretariat. And American Pharoah, traditional Thoroughbred zeitgeist in our new global millennium.
For the second time in three years, there's a real chance the church ladies will have to add another square to the quilt, number 13. His name?
Justify, Scat Daddy's big little boy.
Oh, Just a Game, the eighth race is named in his honor.
Oh boy, we're going to need a hook. A nick. An angle.
Because if we don't get one, even remembering his name might be tough, despite the mental skills bestowed upon me by Jerry "Dr. Memory" Lucas, the NBA Hall of Famer who memorized the Treasury number on a pre-Broadway Hamilton and spit it right back at us middle-schoolers three seconds later, as if whipping out a new sawbuck wasn't impressive enough. Luke sold his system in the offseason, a few of its tidbits apt for handicapping, not that I knew it then.
But conjure we must, because Justify has an excellent chance to win the 150th Belmont Stakes (Grade I, 12 furlongs Dirt, $1.5 million) on Saturday, which would give him the second Triple Crown in 36 months. 'Pharoah, the first horse to even run in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont since 2005's Afleet Alex, broke a Crown-less streak of 37 years.
Sired by Scat Daddy, out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, even a mundane derivative of his parents' names would be more exciting everywhere than "Justify." Except maybe down at your local Internal Affairs Unit.
Johannesburg was his grand sire and he's got luminaries Storm Cat, Nijinsky(!) and Relaunch in the DNA. He couldn't be better bred for this race but gosh, that name! There are 20 alternatives just in these two grafs.
I have no right, it's not up to me and the Jockey Club has strict rules about these things. But I would promise not to be too Colloquial about it, because that name was already taken and our superstar would never have wanted to be that horse, of course.
With the legal match between his lip tattoo and the name Justify, what about a cool nickname?
Though he'll never top John Henry, who was The Steel Drivin' Horse.
Justify's office nickname is Big Red, the third I know of. The other two were Man o' War and Secretariat, so superstition dares not blow through supertrainer Bob Baffert's barn. Arrogance? Lack of creativity?
Maybe we could call him "Apollo's Creed." After all, our boy did become the first since that one, in 1882, to win the Derby without racing at two.
Yo, JUST(ify) beware of the closer! It can be a real hazard in The Belmont. Ask Smarty Jones or, better yet, his jockey, Stewart Elliott. But Mike Smith is no Elliott, grazie a Dio, the wiseguys on Taylor Street would say.
Or "Soupy Sails."
We'll have to wait on that one, because there's only a 50 percent chance of rain at Big Sandy, Elmont, New York. But if it comes at the right time . . . soup! With bread, and a tiptoe skip down the long Belmont stretch.
Although always remember it's more than just a spa tour to sample mudpacks. "Every racetrack mud is different," legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas said at Pimlico, before the Preakness. "This mud, Churchill's mud, Saratoga's mud, they're all different. You just don't know." D. Wayne's got Bravazo going Saturday.
Justify's been a storm chaser this year. One time, no biggie, in the bad and getting worse weather at Churchill Downs in the Derby. But all eight lanterns were lit to see the horses home in the Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico. Worst weather in the first two gems, the oldtimers said.
While Belmont can and does dry quickly, if Hall of Fame jockey and California kid Mike Smith gets his quagmire this weekend, his memoir will include the chapter "The Effect of Climate Change on Racing Luck."
With truly menacing weather, we could call him "Old Thunderbolt." But, nuts, that name is already taken too.
"Don't Call Me Slew!" would backfire, because this horse will not ever be Seattle Slew, the only horse to win the Triple Crown undefeated, as Justify is trying to do. Absolutely no confusion there.
Even though the horse is big, very large, which will be a major factor on him getting all of the 1-1/2 miles Saturday.
Justify is 16.3 hands and weighed in at 1,280 pounds before the Derby. That compares to Secretariat's 16.2 hands (66 inches) and 1,130 pounds, roughly the same as Man o' War. For full triangulation, Zenyatta, who wreaked havoc on the game with a 19-race win streak, stood 17.2 hands and tipped the scales at a Rubenesque 1,217 pounds.
Let's see if the folks at NBC can come up with something.
The questions remains: Can Justify win? Will he win? Another Triple Crown in three years?! The answers are: Yes. And, as always, maybe.
Don't know if this means anything. I always create a new, separate computer folder for a big race, or raceday or weekend. In 2015, I created the folder "2015-TripleCrown" that had individual folders inside for each leg. That was the only year I've ever done that. Could this be an A&E mystery special?
But then, it's always about the handicapping. In post position order:
1. Justify (4-5 morning line odds)
Forget "the dreaded one post." As Ol' Red at Jackson Street always mumbled, long race. The post alone will not determine the outcome, but it does present some complications.
Justify has always - all of five races - been a near-or-on-the-lead type. Will he and/or Mike Smith attempt to scoot away from the others? Twelve furlongs at Belmont is only once around, so the first turn is a ways away. At what energy cost? Or it could just "happen," Justify tries to wire it and is toast at the 31-length pole monument they erected to 1973's Big Red. Then, as every jockey in this race has ever said, Smith will "try to get him to relax" on the long backstretch. This is where Smarty Jones (with Elliott's help), ran faster inner fractions than Secretariat and fashioned his own doom. We're not really sure if the horses immediately outside him, especially Free Drop Billy, will be able to cut off Justify for the early lead, which might be the best thing that could happen to Justify. But will this confuse Saturday's Big Red? Remember, his first race was only February 18.
Justify took the early lead in the Preakness and then traded nose leads with Good Magic in the backstretch on a pace not as hot as the Derby's, but respectable. Bravazo and then Tenfold, both trying to upend Justify here, overtook a tiring Good Magic. Good enough for 9.5 furlongs, but Justify would have finished third or worse at 12 panels.
Energy. It's not only going to take enough energy and stamina to get around the track in front, which we have no way of knowing, but it will also take extra energy for Justify to have some sense of where he is and to obey Smith's commands. If the lithium ions are charged, there's no way he loses this race. If he is in a downward, fatigued form drop that includes the Preakness, as many believe, he won't win.
As for wagering, no value, so you may have to include him and extend out another horse in the exotics. If you think he Shows or finishes out of the money, you have a chance to score. Watch the Show pool, just in case. Trifecta, Superfecta, you gotta include him.
We joke about the weather, but it will be a factor in one of three ways at a track that truly does dry out quickly. Sloppy, self-explanatory. Fast track, same. But if it comes up wet or muddy, it could get sticky. Whether a horse loves or hates it, that takes more energy.
As for Justify, it's one thing to be young and hot and win the first two legs of the Crown, but his entire, very short career has been based on pure precociousness. That won't get it done in The Belmont, which is why they call it The Test of Champions. If he wins, almost no matter how, he will become that champion. As a runner, he will have become a man.
2. Free Drop Billy (30-1)
I'm sick of this horse. I only really learned of him this year, his being exposed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile not registering with me. But he came in with buzz off of slow but good placings at two. He's been Michael Jackson Moonwalking backwards all season. They sent the Coast Guard with umbrellas out to find him 41 lengths back in the Derby. I like Robby Albarado, did some great things in Chicago, but this one's Beyer Speed Figures stink. A 79 in his last win, three weeks before Halloween! Dale Romans should know better.
3. Bravazo (8-1)
D. Wayne Lukas goes for his fourth Belmont. The problem I have here is that Bravazo, the only other horse to run all three legs, seems like a typical Lukas horse these days. He makes enough of a - pardon me - splash to make people think he can overtake Justify on this day if the big boy tires. He took second in the Preakness. Good Magic gave way. Justify didn't. Although Bravazo did neck Tenfold. Other than that, he's beaten nobody, was blasted in the Louisiana Derby by more than 21 and hasn't sniffed a triple-digit Beyer. He's gotta be tired too. He'll probably take too much money. Listen to what Jerry Bailey says and if he contradicts himself, as he sometimes gets caught up, use your judgement.
4. Hofburg (9-2)
Ladies and gentlemen! Step right up! See it to believe it! Believe it without seeing it! Chosen-annointed-by every wiseguy from Louisville to Elmont, with no stops in between. I present to you, the horse, the wonder horse, who will reject, rebuff, deny that pretty boy's designs on the elusive Triple Crown. You say he ran into Audible in Florida's Derby? Just an unfortunate day for the youngster. I remind you of his traffic jams in Kentucky, and, racing fanatics, was he not running to the wire just so well to join the six in front of him that rainy, messy day? Believe me when I say, he's exquisitely bred. Has the wizardly William Mott behind him and Irad Ortiz in the saddle. Only four races in his young life you say? Breeding, boy, breeding. That's what you pray to. And he practices hard, real hard. Can this long closer close into Belmont glory? Not any way on this earth or this circuit to know, just close his door in front of or behind you. Your choice today.
5. Restoring Hope (30-1)
Hope in what? Did they give Baffert feed vouchers for the week for this one? To keep Justify company on the trip over? Okay, 70-1 to Show only if there's a bridgejumper pool is no sin. Anything more is. Father Aristides will be hearing confessions after the trophy presentation.
6. Gronkowski (12-1)
Bad: He's named after the football player. He's never gone longer than a mile. Has never run on dirt, only turf and synthetic. The real danger is that his Shindig appearance will convince American teenybopper bettors this Australian-sired Derby contest winner with an NFL name is the real cat's meow, which will drum down his odds. Named after and part-owned by the football player. Good: He's a horse. Won four straight. Chad Brown trains and Jose Ortiz rides. He's had two decent workouts at Belmont. Pick: If you're going to go for it, make sure you have a good play designed.
7. Tenfold (12-1)
Son of Curlin with the all-important Tapit on the damside, this one's getting some of the tout splashing off of Hofburg. He got pinched on the entrance ramp into the stretch at Pimlico and ran out of real estate to get Bravazo or perhaps Justify. Maybe he should have done better in the Arkansas Derby, where one of his cylinders missed down the stretch. Or maybe he just wasn't ready. He too has only raced four times, but his Beyers, on an upward trend, are better than Hofburg's. Arkansas was nearly two months ago. He needed the Preakness and got a lot out of it, which doesn't always happen. You cannot say Steve Asmussen is "wheeling" him back for this, but Tenfold figures to be on the muscle and ready to go. Nervous me will cross my fingers for a price, but I think I'll get one. Hot-enough Roberto Santana rides. Oye como va? Ganar por favor.
8. Vino Rosso (8-1)
In 2014, when California Chrome was running for the Crown, Belmont and the Long Island Railroad couldn't handle the crowds, which clocked in at 102,000. Since then, they've limited the crowd to 90,000. Can't this country, especially New York, do anything anymore? This horse, owned by full-blooded New Yorkers Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole, is touted as the local boy. This is his turf, we've been pointing to this, in our own 'hood. New York, New York, baby! Talk, anywhere, is cheap, and there are doubts. This son of Curlin has been inconsistent. He'll have to run right back to, and more, his 98 Beyer win in Aqueduct's Wood Memorial prep for the Derby, in which he beat nobody. He's never run at Belmont. He's getting major props for picking up five lengths in finishing ninth in the Derby. Saturday would be an up in an up-down Beyer cycle, but an up was a third in the Sam Davis and a down a fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby. Because the other poop is that Todd Pletcher skipped the Preakness just for this occasion, Vino is locked and loaded. I believe he'll take too much money. The Derby slop is a huge monkey wrench in his handicapping, so at least try to get a price you can live with.
9. Noble Indy (30-1)
This is the same "Pletcher skips the Preakness" m.o. Todd pulls off the blinkers this time, a 31 percent move for him, and he's been working very well at Belmont. He did well in Louisiana, notching a 95 Beyer in winning the Louisiana Derby to two Kentucky Derby afterthoughts. I can't say yes, and I can't say no. If Justify's coin toss comes up tails, you might want to have included this one.
10. Blended Citizen (15-1)
I've seen this one touted and trashed. Touted off his win on synthetic in the Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway and another in the Peter Pan here at Belmont. His Beyers are bad for this race and mediocre overall. But he'll have the best view of the nine horses' asses in front of him.
Please remember that if Justify wins this Belmont and the Triple Crown, it in no way diminishes American Pharoah's accomplishments and will never mean the Triple Crown is becoming easier or more winnable.
The three of the '70s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, had legendary careers all their own, three of the greatest of all time, individually, who just happened to come along in the same decade. Really.
We could wait another 37 years out from 'Pharoah, or we could see another one Saturday. Diametrically opposed to the tired old Warriors or Cavaliers or Patriots, so very few of these horses get just one shot at immortality.
One quote I read said there's a reason it took 37 years to win a Crown - it's hard.
Not every great balling team wins, and not every winning ballteam is great.
But for these 12, and perhaps a 13th, greatness is unquestioned. Ever.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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