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Post Time: Justify takes center stage in Triple Crown bid

BELMONT – The Triple Crown is hard enough to win without superstitions getting in the way.

Justify (4-5), the strapping chestnut colt by Scat Daddy, will attempt to become Triple Crown club member No. 13 in Saturday’s 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.

Thirteen, not exactly the luckiest number in the world.

Add to the oddity that Justify will be wearing the red racing silks of the China Horse Club, instead of the WinStar Farm silks he wore during the first two Triple Crown races and full out panic should be setting in.

Oh, and the New York Racing Association has conveniently left a spot next to the 12 placards sporting the previous winners of the Crown in the Belmont Park infield for good measure.

Please don’t tell me they have the 13th placard already painted and ready to go.

That would be like telling a pitcher in the eighth inning how well his no-hitter is going. Or to tell the Eastern Conference winning hockey captain to give the Wales Trophy a nice kiss.

The reason for the silks change is due to the partnership agreement between WinStar and the China Horse Club, wherein every fourth race would be run in the red and gold China Horse Club colors.

Superstitions, be damned.

“He ran in those silks his second out,” said Baffert. “I’m superstitious about little things, but not really about the silks, it’s probably the first time it’s ever happened, I don’t know,” said Baffert when asked about the change at Barn No. 1 on Wednesday.

Baffert has more than superstitions to worry about on Saturday. A field of nine other competitors, a mile-and-a-half trek over the deep, sandy Belmont Park track, and the slim chance of a passing thunderstorm lie in wait for the superstar colt.

His two previous efforts on wet tracks proved that the big red colt can handle the off going, but those races tend to take more out of a horse than a fast track would. The taxing three races in five weeks could finally take a toll on the 3-year-old’s bid for immortality.

This will be Justify’s sixth race since Feb. 18, without having a race at age 2. Capturing racing’s Holy Grail after that sequence of races would be monumental. He is attempting to become the second colt in history to capture the Triple Crown while being undefeated, the first was Seattle Slew in 1977.

A win would give trainer Bob Baffert his second Triple Crown winner and his 15th win in a Triple Crown race, both records that will be tough to top. Jockey Mike Smith will be seeking his third Belmont Stakes victory and a Triple Crown win that would put the icing on his Hall of Fame resume.

Chad Brown, trainer for Gronkowski (12-1), lauded Baffert’s efforts with high praise for the Hall of Fame trainer. “He’s someone I admire, he’s a great trainer and great manager of horses,” said Brown. “A really good long-term planner. He has tremendous feel that you can’t teach somebody about exactly where you’re at with horses and how to deal with problems.”

The job Baffert did to get Justify to win the Preakness was impressive according to Brown, himself the reigning two-time Eclipse Award winning trainer.

“The horse was able to overcome some things to win that race,” said Brown. “He obviously had a minor issue that he was dealing exiting the Derby that seemed to have been resolved through experience and good planning and management. The horse ran a hell of a race to put away a horse like Good Magic and still have enough to hang on, with not a large margin of victory,” said Brown.

“That horse is exceptional. First of all, physically, he looks like Lebron James, the horse,” said Brown.

So who can challenge Justify and deny his bid for the Triple Crown?

Three or four horses have the stamina based on their pedigree to stay the 12 furlongs and give Justify some cause for concern before the wire, should his previous efforts start to catch up with him as he winds down the stretch.

Bravazo (8-1), sired by Awesome Again out of a Cee’s Tizzy mare has the same breeding as 2012 Belmont runner-up Paynter, who ironically had the Baffert/Smith connections that day. The Calumet Farm-owned colt has handled the off-tracks during both the first two legs for D. Wayne Lukas, who is tied with Baffert for number of Triple Crown race wins at 14.

The Preakness runner-up reminds me of Oxbow, who also ran a big Belmont Stakes after winning the 2013 Preakness in the same Calumet silks. He’ll likely be laying off the pace and his breeding will be the factor that pays off in deep stretch.

The steam horse since Justify crossed the wire in Baltimore appears to be Hofburg (9-2). Sired by the prodigious Tapit, a win would provide the stallion with an unprecedented fourth win in the Test of a Champion.

Bill Mott trained Drosselmeyer in 2010 to his first Belmont win and will have New York circuit rider Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard the second choice on the morning line. His price likely will be an underlay and closers rarely contend in the Belmont, so we’ll only use underneath in the exotics.

Tenfold (12-1), the fast closing colt who finished third in the Preakness is by Curlin, who has produced a Belmont winner (Palace Malice) and two placings (Irish War Cry, Keen Ice) as a stallion. The lightly raced colt has shown improvement in every race and could be ready to explode in the Belmont.

His damsire is the aforementioned Tapit. Trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the 2016 Belmont with Creator, will have Robby Albarado in the irons on Tenfold, seeking his first Triple Crown race victory.

Justify has taken to the track both days he has galloped over it since his arrival Wednesday. Baffert has been through it before and looks much more relaxed than he did after breaking the 37-year drought three years ago. He’s been on an amazing streak with American Pharoah, Arrogate, West Coast and now, Justify.

“It’s a business built on dreams,” said Baffert. “When they do come to life, it is pretty amazing run we’ve been on. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”

The racing clock that hangs on the wall in my office sports each of the 12 Triple Crown winners, symmetric to each of the hours on the clock. After three short years, that clock could be rendered obsolete by late Saturday evening.

Only time will tell.

Post Time Outlook (Fast Track): 1 – Justify; 2 – Bravazo; 3 – Hofburg; 4 – Tenfold

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

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