Justify the heavy favorite to pull off historic Belmont Stakes, Triple Crown win

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Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify will make a run for the horse-racing record books Saturday as he attempts to win the Belmont Stakes and complete a historic sweep of the Triple Crown.

Justify would become just the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown and just the second undefeated horse to capture the elusive prize. Only Seattle Slew in 1977 has accomplished that feat. Majestic Prince in 1969, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008 went into the Belmont Stakes undefeated after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but were beaten as big favorites in the third leg of the Triple Crown.

All of those horses had more experience than Justify going into the Belmont. But Justify has already proven that historical norms don’t apply to him. He won the Kentucky Derby in just his fourth lifetime start, and in doing so, beat the dreaded Curse of Apollo as the first horse since 1892 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.

American Pharoah is the last Triple Crown winner, having swept the series in 2015. Neither Nyquist or Always Dreaming, the Kentucky Derby winners of 2016 and 2017, were able to capture the middle jewel of the crown in the Preakness Stakes.

When a Triple Crown is on the line, the Belmont Stakes always gets elevated in the public’s mind and this year is no exception. According to ticketing site Vivid Seats, the average cost of a reserved seat for this year’s race is $314, up 145% from 2017. That beats the $300 average in 2014 when California Chrome, a horse who had grown a popular following, pursued the Triple Crown. The next year prices for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win actually fell to near $260. With no crown on the line in 2016 and 2017 prices were less than half that, hovering near $120.

Wagering strategy

Justify is the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Belmont. Hofburg is the second choice at 9-2; Bravazzo, the only other horse he will face who competed in both the Derby and Preakness, and Vino Rosso are next at 8-1.

But as low as Justify’s morning-line odds are, they are likely to be lower — perhaps even as low as 1-5 — by post time, which is set for 6:46 p.m. Eastern Saturday.

“He’ll be a really short price. The only real question in [betting the race] is are you with him or against him? I’m with him,” said Mike Beer, Daily Racing Form’s New York handicapper, on a Wednesday handicapping conference call. “He’s just a lot better than these horses.”

The one knock against Justify is his speed figures, a handicapping measure that attempts to quantify a horse’s performance across differing race tracks and surfaces. Even though he won the Derby convincingly, Justify’s speed figure for that race was lower than his previous win in the Santa Anita Derby. And his Preakness performance rated lower still.

“Leaving aside speed figures and declining trend, it was clear that was not a good performance in the Preakness after the way he dominated his other races and with authority,” said Andrew Beyer, racing columnist and inventor of the Beyer Speed Figures that are widely used by horse-racing handicappers.

“Clearly he is the one greatly talented horse in this field. And it seems crazy to take a stand against him. But after five races in three months is it possible his form is turning downward? There is that likelihood,” he said.

Because of the anticipated short price on Justify, neither Beer nor Beyer is willing to risk much of their bankroll on the race. But if there were to be an upsetter, it would be Vino Rosso for Beer and Tenfold for Beyer.

“If I go in a totally different direction than Justify I just might cast my lot with Vino Rosso. If he could get back to is Wood Memorial [a race he won by three expanding lengths] he would have a chance. I’ll give him a pass in the Derby [where he finished 10 lengths behind Justify].”

“I can’t love anybody but Tenfold would be my horse in here,” Beyer said. “Steve Asmussen (the trainer) likes to bring horses along slowly and this could be the one horse in this field who is cut out to be good horse and is on the upgrade. I could see him improving significantly over his Preakness [third-place finish].”

Justify will line up from post No. 1 against nine foes, 10 fewer than he faced in the Kentucky Derby. He will square off against four horses who he beat in the Derby but skipped the Preakness and three newcomers to the Triple Crown trail.