Justify a deserving Triple Crown winner – but the in-race shenanigans were real

The post-race routine after the Belmont Stakes is as follows: the media walks downstairs to the Belmont Park theater room to interview the connections of the winning horse. Usually it takes a while for the winners to get there, and Saturday was no exception. That downtime gave us a chance to watch about eight replays of the race that ran on a loop on the theater screens.

Watching those replays Saturday night, it seemed clear to me that trainer Bob Baffert used his lesser-regarded entry, Restoring Hope, as a blocker for his star horse and Triple Crown aspirant, Justify. Restoring Hope broke poorly from the No. 5 post, but then jockey Florent Geroux gunned him to the front with great vigor, essentially walling off outside horses Tenfold (from the No. 7 post) and Noble Indy (from the nine). It was especially problematic for the latter, a front-running type who was forced wide and was unable to make the lead. After running wide himself, Restoring Hope course-corrected inward to impede Preakness runner-up Bravazo’s path.

That allowed Justify a trouble-free start from the No. 1 post and a smooth trip into the first turn, establishing himself in his customary front-running position and then rolling wire-to-wire for the historic victory.

After a slow start, Restoring Hope (middle in pink) veered to his left toward the front. (AP)
After a slow start, Restoring Hope (middle in pink) veered to his left toward the front. (AP)

Restoring Hope’s blocking move was a questionable tactic to some – Baffert seemed to be sacrificing one horse’s chances to enhance another’s. It seems like smart (albeit overly protective) racing strategy to me, provided the ownership of Restoring Hope (Gary and Mary West) didn’t mind their best 3-year-old being used as a pawn in a high-stakes chess match.

At the time, I didn’t know that it would become a significant controversy, but I thought it was worth inquiring about. I asked Baffert about it in the news conference and he denied any intent to basically set a moving screen in order to help Justify win the Triple Crown.

“No, Restoring Hope, he has natural speed, and his only chance was to be up near the lead in the first wave because he’s like a one-dimensional horse,” Baffert said. “… He’s not a horse to come off the [pace]. All his races were decent where he had to be up close. We were just giving him a chance.”

In truth, Restoring Hope never had a chance and had no business being entered in the race if the object was to win. He was 30-1 in the morning line Belmont odds and has won just one career race. Perhaps most importantly, Baffert isn’t the kind of trainer to take a flyer with an overmatched horse in a big race – especially when he’s saddling the favorite with a chance to make history.

So from the moment Restoring Hope was entered, there was speculation about an ulterior motive involving race strategy. When the draw put Justify in the No. 1 hole, susceptible to being trapped along the rail and having his early speed squelched, race strategy took on added importance. And when Restoring Hope sped into the first turn like a quarter horse, it seemed pretty clear what happened.

But Mike Repole, co-owner of both Noble Indy and late-running Vino Rosso, wasn’t going to simply chalk it up to race riding.

“It definitely seemed to me [Restoring Hope] was more of an offensive lineman than a racehorse trying to win the Belmont,” Repole told the New York Post, “and Justify was a running back trying to run for a touchdown.”

The humorous part of Repole’s complaint is that Vino Rosso’s chance to win was also largely dependent upon the work of another horse, Noble Indy. The two horses are both trained by Todd Pletcher, and the only scenario that made sense for a Vino Rosso victory was for Noble Indy to hook Justify on the lead into a withering speed duel, softening up the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion for a late run by the closer Vino Rosso. It’s almost certainly why Noble Indy was entered.

Basically, Pletcher’s two-horse racing tactic simply ran up against a better two-horse racing tactic.

Still, you wonder whether Baffert kept his plan to himself. Gary West hardly seemed to love Geroux’s ride on his horse, judging from the comment he gave the Post: “I have no idea what Florent was thinking or what his race strategy was. Had I known better, I would have thought it was a quarter-horse race and not the mile-and-a-half Belmont.”

No protests were filed after the race, and the result was declared official. The New York Racing Association stewards are likely to discuss and review the race Wednesday, when racing resumes at Belmont. They could consider reprimanding Geroux if they believe his ride was careless or dangerous, but there is zero chance they change the outcome of the Belmont.

For starters, there could be no foul claim directly involving Justify or his jockey, Mike Smith. They did nothing even remotely controversial in cruising to victory Saturday. The Belmont result will stand, in perpetuity.

But there are a couple of problems for horse racing here. Potentially big problems.

One is that this controversy increases the level of suspicion and distrust in a sport that is already steeped in suspicion and distrust. The betting public, already a cynical bunch, will only further wonder whether they’re wagering on legitimate competitions.

The other problem is that mega-owners and mega-trainers with huge stables increase the conflicts of interest in big races. WinStar Farm owns part of Justify, but also owns part of Noble Indy – and, if you recall, also owns part of Audible, also trained by Pletcher. That horse finished a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby and, coming out of that race, was considered the prime competition for Justify at the Belmont. But Audible was surprisingly scratched from the Belmont in late May, leading to widespread suspicion that WinStar was sidelining the most serious threat to Justify’s Triple Crown.

That seemed like a smart business decision to me, but it was not well received by those who wanted to see whether Justify was good enough to beat all comers.

When you combine the benching of Audible with the blocking of Restoring Hope, you start to wonder: Is Justify a great horse, or a horse who got a lot of help looking great? Was he a legitimate Triple Crown champion, or the beneficiary of some outcomes that were manipulated by humans to dilute the competition?

Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is congratulated after Justify won the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown on Saturday. (AP)
Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is congratulated after Justify won the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown on Saturday. (AP)

I believe he’s a great horse and a legitimate Triple Crown winner. I believe the Restoring Hope blockade was more an inconvenience to the rest of the field than an impediment. He didn’t prevent anyone from winning; he just made the task a bit harder for a few of them. If they were good enough, they could have overcome some challenges early in the race – as did runner-up Gronkowski, who got a terrible break and languished in dead last for a long time before a savvy ride by Jose Ortiz gave him a chance in the stretch.

And there is nothing in the rules of racing that expressly disallow the sort of blocking technique Baffert employed in the Belmont. In fact, he’s done it before – and so has Pletcher.

In August 2016, longtime racetracker Eric Wing wrote a blog post about what he called a “Baffert Wall” in the ’16 Travers Stakes – American Freedom running interference for Arrogate, who went on to win a race that for the first three-quarters of a mile was almost a replay of Justify’s Belmont. Wing suggests that Baffert got the strategy from Pletcher, who built walls of his own in the 2015 Belmont and the Donn Handicap the same year.

So it seems clear that what happened at Belmont on Saturday wasn’t new, and it will probably happen more frequently in coming years if the best horses continue to cluster in the hands of a few trainers and owners. Under the current rules of the sport, using one horse as a blocker for another is simply smart racing strategy. But it could further corrode the already rusty credibility of the sport.

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