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Triple Crown on the line as undefeated Justify faces nine in Belmont; here is a breakdown of the field

By Liane Crossley
Special to NKy Tribune

Three years ago, thoughts of a Triple Crown seemed virtually impossible after nearly four decades without a winner, but American Pharoah proved the dream could become reality.

Justify (Photo courtesy Benoit Photography)

 Now Justify stands ready to join the elite 12 Triple Crown winners or add his name to a long list of Thoroughbreds who won two of the three jewels. The outcome will be determined Saturday in the $1.5-million Belmont Stakes in the New York City suburbs at Belmont Park.

Like American Pharoah, Justify is trained by Bob Baffert, who has come to the Belmont Stakes with three Triple Crown hopefuls that failed to sweep the series—Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2001).

Unlike those runners, Justify never has tasted defeat in a five-race career that did not being until February. After holding off game runner-up Good Magic in the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths, Justify eked out a half-length score in the Preakness against Belmont Stakes challengers Bravazo and Tenfold who were closing in at the finish line. Both races were conducted on extremely muddy surfaces. The forecast calls for dry weather leading up to the 1 ½-mile race but possible precipitation on Saturday could lead to another wet track.

In addition to the intrigue of a Triple Crown sweep, this year’s edition has international flavor with Gronkowski coming from Europe. Post time for the 1 ½-mile race is around 6:46 ET. NBC’s broadcast begins at 4:00 with additional coverage beginning at 2:00 on their affiliate NBC Sports Network.

Following is the list of entries in post-position order. All entrants are coincidentally Kentucky-born.

  1. Justify

Those who know him best have said unbeaten Justify showed superiority long before he romped to victory in his career debut earlier this year. His style is to cruise on the lead, a tactic that produced a clear triumph in the Kentucky Derby and a half-length score in the Preakness. Both events were contested on muddy tracks which might have been disadvantageous to his rivals.

Kentucky connection: Although trained by California-based Bob Baffert, Justify has done most of his spring conditioning at Churchill Downs. He was purchased for $500,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

  1. Free Drop Billy

A son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Free Drop Billy bypassed the Preakness Stakes after finishing 16th in the Kentucky Derby. His name is derived from golf terminology and his owners’ friend.

Kentucky connection: Free Drop Billy is based at Churchill Downs with Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans.The colt was sold for $200,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. His sire resides at Lane’s End in Versailles.

  1. Bravazo

Sixth in the Kentucky Derby, Bravazo thundered through the fog to be second in the Preakness. He is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time winner of the Belmont.

Kentucky connection: He is owned and bred by the iconic white-fenced Calumet Farm in Lexington that is now owned by Kentucky native Brad Kelley. Under previous ownership, Calumet Farm won the Belmont twice with Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948). His sire Awesome Again is at Adena Springs in Paris.

  1. Hofburg

Hofburg has raced just four times including his seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and runner-up effort in the Florida Derby. His trainer Bill Mott took the 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer.

Kentucky connection: He was born and raised at his owner’s Juddmonte Farms in Lexington. His sire Tapit resides at Gainesway in Lexington.

  1. Restoring Hope

A newcomer to the Triple Crown trail, Restoring Hope is shares his barn with Justify as both are trained by Bob Baffert. He proved his mettle in the upper echelon when finishing third in the Wood Memorial Stakes at New York’s Aqueduct in April.

Kentucky connection: Restoring Hope readied for the Belmont at Churchill Downs.

  1. Gronkowski

This colt is named for Rob Gronkowski, a player for the New England Patriots of the National Football League, who became a partner in the horse earlier this year. The four-legged Gronkowski has competed exclusively in England after an expected start in the Kentucky Derby was cancelled when he developed a fever two weeks before the race.

Kentucky connection: He was sold for $75,000 as a weanling at Keeneland’s November mixed auction in 2015.

Two thirds of the triple:
Since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978, these horses have won two of the three jewels (Click to enlarge).

  1. Tenfold

The longest priced chance in the Preakness Stakes, Tenfold stormed down the stretch to finish third, just three-quarters of a length behind Justify. He did not begin his racing career until February when he won his career debut at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. His trainer Steve Asmussen won the 2016 Belmont Stakes with Creator.

Kentucky connection: Headquartered at Churchill Downs, he is a son of Curlin, who is at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Lexington.

  1. Vino Roso

The ninth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby is conditioned by three-time Belmont Stakes winner Todd Pletcher. His moniker is Italian for red wine.

Kentucky connection: The $410,000 Keeneland September yearling sale purchase is a son of Curlin, who resides at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Lexington.

  1. Noble Indy

Noble Indy bypassed the Preakness after finishing 17th in the Kentucky Derby. Prior to that he won the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on March 24. He is trained by Todd Pletcher who won last year’s Belmont with Tapwrit and also with Rags to Riches (2007) and Palace Malice (2013). His name is a nod to his sire Take Charge Indy and his dam Noble Maz.

Kentucky connection: Noble Indy was offered at the Keeneland September yearling sale but his owner deemed the price insufficient on a final bid of $45,000.

  1. Blended Citizen

An alternate for the Kentucky Derby, Blended Citizen stayed in the barn when there were no late scratches from the line-up. He tuned up for his Triple Crown debut by winning on May 12 at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan Stakes, a race named for a noted Thoroughbred of the early 20th century.  Blended Citizen won the Jeff Ruby Steaks Stakes at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky on March 17 and then finished fifth in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes on April 7. He is trained by Doug O’Neill, who won the first two legs of the 2012 Triple Crown with I’ll Have Another, who did not start in the Belmont.

Kentucky connection: Blended Citizen was offered at the Keeneland September yearling sale but failed to sell on a final bid of $57,000. His sire Proud Citizen is a stallion at former Kentucky Governor Brereton C. Jones’ Airdrie Stud in Midway.

Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing who has held a variety of jobs in both barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them. She can be reached at crossleyliane@yahoo.com

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