The Belmont Stakes is the third and longest leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. As American Pharoah and others have shown, a quick burst out of the gate might be more important than stamina down the stretch.
The last five horses to capture the final leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, have taken an early lead in the race, a testament to the importance of possessing speed over stamina in the race with a stereotype having evolved that it must have been that extra quarter-mile that screwed the race favorite and potential Triple Crown winner from etching his (or her) name into the history books. And when you look at the names of those five successful front-runners who ended up winning the most important race of their lives, the so-called "Test of the Champion," it’s like a Mount Rushmore-plus-one of equine greatness on it with Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), and latest super-horse American Pharoah (2015), who also went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6½ lengths, shattering the track record en route to earning the 2015 Eclipse Horse of the Year award.
As Bob Ehalt in America’s Best Racing astutely points out, "In each of the last six Belmonts, one of the top two finishers were horses who were either first or second after the first half-mile. Extend that stat a few years and in the last nine years, eight runners who were either first or second four furlongs into the race finished first or second.” Ehalt also revealed that only three of the last 23 Belmont winners were leading after the opening half-mile, with one of them being the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah.
So logic might dictate that not staying close to the lead or caring about the pack in the longer race would be a decent strategy if a jockey thought his horse had enough speed and stamina to make up that extra distance in the 12-furlong race on the dirt track. But that train of thought is deceiving, with staying close or grabbing the lead lately proving to be the best strategy.
Only two of the 10 front-runners in the L10 years have won at Belmont (Da’ Tara, American Pharoah), and wire-to-wire winner Da’Tara (38/1 post odds) benefited from a bad horseshoe in a race Big Brown (1/4) would’ve likely won and put his name into the history books, even from post No. 20.
So does the longer distance suit Justify’s (107, 104, 103, 101 Beyer Speed Figures) running style? Recent history shows us that half of the L10 winners here were in 3rd place or better after the first half-mile, so plugging in what we saw from Justify (-125 to win Belmont Stake, Bovada) in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, we should expect the unbeaten (5-0-0 in 5 career races) 3-year-old to be either leading or in the top three at that particular point in the Belmont on June 9 (5 p.m. ET; NBC).
Two of the three horses who seemingly “ran down” Justify in the Preakness will be in the Belmont in 2nd-place finisher Bravazo (7/1 to win Belmont Stakes) and 3rd-place finisher Tenfold (10/1 to win Belmont), and many will perceive that spurt down the stretch and close finish at the wire to translate to Justify — like so many others have trying for the Triple Crown — being able to be beaten in a longer distance. CBS Sports expert Hank Greenberg thinks the Belmont may be a tough race for Justify, telling CBS SportsLine, “The Preakness took a lot out of Justify. He was never pushed like he was in that race. His first race was Feb. 18 and he's going to have considerable competition in the Belmont Stakes, much more than he faced in the Preakness." And with current entrants like hard-closer Vino Rosso (8/1), Hofburg (4/1), Bravazo and Tenfold, Greenberg somewhat has a valid point although the sheer number of horses who will end up entering this always over-hyped race — when a horse wins the first two legs — and the names of the talented 3-year-olds that probably won’t be running (Good Magic, Audible, Bolt d’Oro, Magnum Moon, Mendelssohn) sort of dispels Greenberg’s notion.
But renowned horse racing expert and NHL color commentator Eddie Olczyk of NBC sounded pretty optimistic Monday about Justify’s chances of making history, although he made no official pick.