Audible out of Belmont Stakes, and his absence may affect fan views of Justify's Triple Crown bid

There’s an intriguing story brewing in the run-up to the June 9 Belmont Stakes, one that could affect the way some fans view Justify’s bid to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.

Audible, the horse expected to be Justify’s chief competition in the 1 ½-mile endurance test, will not run, trainer Todd Pletcher said Friday morning.

“We have decided to freshen Audible up for a summer campaign,” Pletcher told HorseRacingNation.com. “I don’t feel like he’s as well as he was leading up to the Derby. I just don’t feel like he is where he needs to be to compete in the Belmont. We’ll freshen him up for the Jim Dandy or the Haskell.”

There’s a catch: Audible is owned by the same group — WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners — that owns Justify. And skeptics will surely argue that the owners are shelving Audible to give Justify an easier path to the Triple Crown and its associated riches.

WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden said Thursday that Audible would be “big competition” for Justify if he ran, though the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion would still be favored.

Less than 24 hours later, Audible was out of the race.

This dilemma is nothing new in thoroughbred racing, where owners and trainers routinely place multiple horses in the same race but also avoid matching their horses at inopportune times.

They want to win big races and purses, sure, but they also want to maximize the value of horses that generally run for no more than three years. That leads to inevitable collisions between competitive and profit-driven mentalities.

We see the same issues arise in boxing, another sport without an overarching body to govern competition. And it’s frustrating for casual sports fans who are more used to the league model, in which every team is owned by a different individual or group.

On Thursday, for example, ESPN reported that Justify’s breeding rights had been sold to European racing giant Coolmore for $60 million, with a $25 million bonus if he wins the Triple Crown, according to The New York Times. WinStar said the report was premature, but it nonetheless illustrates the potential incentive if he wins at Belmont Park.

Under those circumstances, it’s hard to see why the ownership group would undermine its interests by running a strong competitor such as Audible.

To add another layer of interest to the story, Justify is trained by Bob Baffert, while Audible is trained by Pletcher, his chief rival of the past 15 years.

Pletcher said he felt Audible ran as well as Justify or any other horse in the late stages of the Derby. And he actually has a longer, deeper relationship with WinStar than Baffert.

Yet there will be no rematch of the first- and third-place Derby finishers.

Perhaps Audible has a minor injury, as co-owner Jack Wolf reportedly wrote on Friday morning. Perhaps he would not have been ready to run his best race on June 9. But as the racing world turns its eyes to Belmont over the next few weeks, the story of his absence will loom.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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