Given the 1 ½-mile length of the race, Justify might have time to recover from a slow start. But no horse has won the Belmont starting from the rail since Empire Maker in 2003.
“I never do like to draw the rail,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “I think the most important thing is the horse is doing well. … We have it, we can’t change it, so we’ll deal with it.”
American Pharoah was a 3-5 favorite in the morning line before he won the Triple Crown three years ago, ending a 37-year drought for the sport’s most glamorous achievement.
Though many analysts believe Justify’s own fatigue is his greatest enemy heading into the unfamiliar endurance test at Belmont Park, he will also face nine challengers trying to block his attempt at becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Bravazo, who finished sixth in the Derby and nearly caught a tiring Justify in the Preakness, will start from the No. 3 post and is an 8-1 third choice in the morning line.
His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said Bravazo is ready, but he’s also one of Justify’s most outspoken admirers.
“It would be a really, really big mistake for anyone to think Justify is not on his game,” said Lukas, who’s currently tied with Baffert for the most career wins in the Triple Crown series.
Third-place Preakness finisher Tenfold will also take another shot at Justify after gaining ground on him down the stretch at Pimlico Race Course. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, won the 2016 Belmont with Creator.
He’ll start from the No. 7 post and is a 12-1 choice in the morning line.
Justify will also face several horses who finished well behind him in the Derby but are coming to the rematch off five weeks of rest.
Hofburg, saddled by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, suffered through a rough trip at Churchill Downs but closed well to finish seventh. He also ran runner-up to Audible in the Florida Derby and is a 9-2 second choice in the morning line. He’ll start from the No. 4 post.
Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, meanwhile, will try to give trainer Todd Pletcher his fourth Belmont victory. The Wood Memorial winner struggled with the mud at Churchill Downs, but his New York-based owners, Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole, have long believed their colt could handle the distance at Belmont. He’s an 8-1 co-third choice in the morning line and will start outside from the No. 8 post.
Pletcher said he’s fine with that position, adding, “Bob may be a little nervous about drawing the one post if Justify doesn’t break.”
Noble Indy, also trained by Pletcher, finished 17th in the Derby and is co-owned by Repole and Justify’s co-owner, WinStar Farm. He’s a 30-1 long shot and will start outside from the No. 9 post.
Absent from the field is Pletcher’s top Derby runner, Audible, who’s owned by the same group as Justify. Pletcher removed Audible from Belmont consideration, saying the colt was not training as well as he had before the Derby.
Free Drop Billy ran a disappointing 16th in the Derby, but trainer Dale Romans chose to give him another shot in the Belmont, citing his excellent pedigree for running longer distances. He’s a 30-1 choice in the morning line and will start next to Justify from the No. 2 post.
Doug O’Neill-trained Blended Citizen won at Belmont Park in the May 12 Peter Pan Stakes and is perhaps the most intriguing contender who started in neither the Derby nor the Preakness. The strong closer will start from the No. 10 post and is listed as a 15-1 choice in the morning line.
Gronkowski will draw plenty of attention because he’s named after and partially owned by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. He missed the Derby because of an infection and will be saddled for the Belmont by a new trainer, Chad Brown. He’s a 12-1 choice in the morning line and will start from the No 6 post.
Another Baffert-trained horse, 30-1 long shot Restoring Hope, will start from the No. 5 post.
Faced with this latest twist, Baffert headed off to throw the first pitch before the Mets-Orioles game and to await Justify’s arrival from Kentucky on Wednesday. Bad draw or no, the big chestnut has looked terrific in his preparations for the Belmont.
“He just keeps bringing it,” Baffert said. “He doesn’t look like the races have taken a toll on him.”
150th Belmont Stakes
Post time: About 6:40 p.m.
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Post positions, odds:
- Justify, 4-5
- Free Drop Billy, 30-1
- Bravazo, 8-1
- Hofburg, 9-2
- Restoring Hope, 30-1
- Gronkowski, 12-1
- Tenfold, 12-1
- Vino Rosso, 8-1
- Noble Indy, 30-1
- Blended Citizen, 15-1