Keeping Score: Justifying the longshot

Friday, June 08, 2018

Good morning!

Undefeated Justify seeks to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in thoroughbred history today when a field of 10 enters the starter’s gate for the 150th Belmont Stakes.

The 3-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert has won five straight races, beginning with a 9½-length win at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 18. 

“This horse is the real deal,” NBC handicapper Ed Olczyk told Sirius-XM’s Chris Russo this week. “We’re going to see history made for the second time in four years.”

Okay, so Secretariat’s not walking through that door to beat him, but three weeks ago Bravazo and Tenfold closed to within a length of him at the wire in the Preakness. Afterward, Olczyk told horseplayers not to believe their lying eyes. “Justify would’ve won if it had been another 70 yards or 70,000,” he said. “(Jockey) Mike Smith had him under wraps.”

Maybe so, but Justify’s Beyer speed figure had been a career low 97, and Tenfold’s trainer Steve Asmussen told the Baltimore Sun: “Honestly? That race ain’t going to scare nobody. We’re three-quarters of a length from where we want to be. Let’s figure out how to get it.”

As for Bravazo, Greenfield handicapper John Dobrydnio noted, “He got abused with the whip (by Luis Saez) in that race. Can he recover? Tenfold’s improving and due for a lot better. I’m using him and putting Hofburg with him in the exacta.”

Forecasters have backed off their forecast for rain, preventing what would’ve been the first time in 120 years that all three Triple Crown races were contested on a wet track.

Eighty-eight years ago at Saratoga, Gallant Fox was beaten in the mud after he got hooked in a speed duel with Whichone and an unknown named Jim Dandy won the 61st Mid-Summer Classic.

Parimutuel wagering wasn’t legal until 1939, and bookies roamed the grounds taking action. “People often say that Jim Dandy was 100-1, but the bookies were taking 500-1 on him, or whatever odds you wanted,” remembered Richard Cherry for the New York Times’ Bill Mooney.

That’s an unlikely scenario this afternoon because all but two horses are closers. One of them, Restored Hope, was entered by Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert to ensure an honest pace. The other colt, Noble Indy, is a 30-1 longshot and unlikely to factor from the start.

Justify drew the rail where no horse has won since Empire Maker in 2003. “We’ll deal with it,” said Baffert, who can take solace knowing that 22 horses since 1908 have won wearing the red cloth.

Here’s a few more historical facts for your perusal. The Belmont Stakes media guide reports that 62 of 147 favorites (42 percent) have won the Belmont, but the only chalk to win in the last 11 years was American Pharoah in 2015.

If Justify goes off as the odds-on favorite, history says his odds to win will drop to 37 percent but his odds of hitting the board are 74 percent.

In 1969, Majestic Prince won the Preakness by a head but lost the Belmont Stakes by 5½ lengths. According to Wikipedia, owner Frank McMahon was charmed by the Big Apple limelight and entered his colt over the objections of trainer Johnny Longden.

Baffert has never relished racing in New York. American Pharoah was soundly beaten in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and Silver Charm and Real Quiet were both denied the Triple Crown when they failed to hold the lead down the long Belmont Park homestretch.

Smith will hustle Justify out of the starting gate, set a leisurely pace and kick into gear turning for home. As Olczyk said, “A mile-and-a-half race becomes a half-mile race.”

But if Noble Indy can wear down Justify, or if he throws a shoe or Smith falls out of the saddle, John Velazquez could pop the cork aboard Vino Rosso.

Trained by three-time Belmont Stakes winner Todd Pletcher, the colt’s owner Mike Repole refers to himself as “Mike from Queens.” A self-made millionaire, he told the New York Post’s Tom Pedulla: “If you could only give me one, I might be the only person who says, ‘I want to win the Belmont Stakes.’”

Today’s 13-race card includes the 88th running of The Acorn for 3-year-old fillies, together with several other million dollar stakes races including the Manhattan Handicap and the Met Mile. Hinsdale OTB will be open for the first race post time at 11:35 a.m., a $70,000 optional claiming allowance for fillies and mares.

A complete rundown of the Belmont Stakes jockeys, trainers and capsule summaries is in today’s sports section.

CUP NOTES: Devante Smith-Pelly’s game-tying goal on Thursday was reminiscent of Bobby Orr’s game winner against the Blues in the 1970 Cup final. Smith-Pelly swung in front of the Las Vegas net and was tripped by defenseman Colin Miller. Similarly, Orr was tripped by Blues defenseman Noel Picard after sliding the puck past Glenn Hall. … After their only road win all season in 1974-75, Cap players “picked up the trash basket and held it over their heads like it was the Stanley Cup,” said NBC’s Mike Emrick, who began his broadcasting career with the Maine Mariners. … An NBC camera caught Alex Ovechkin whacking Marc Andre-Fleury’s ankle during warmups at the blue line, and the enraged Knights netminder took off after him and whacked him back, causing the Caps captain to skate away grinning. … Late in the third period, NBC panned to a woman in a Caps sweater with close-cropped brown hair and her palms pressed together. “It is hard to be the mother of the goalkeeper,” said Emrick, “and there she is from the farm in Saskatchewan.” … The Wall Street Journal reports that youth hockey around D.C., Maryland and Virginia has jumped 37 percent since Ovechkin joined the Caps in 2005-06. It’ll be higher after next week’s parade. ... Caps forward TJ Oshie took public transportation to the games. On the ice after Thursday’s win he said, “My dad doesn’t remember a lot these days, but this one will stick with him forever. You can guarantee that.” Oshie wiped away a tear thinking of his dad who suffers from dementia.

SQUIBBERS: Seeking the next Vinny Wilfork at nose tackle, in March the Patriots acquired former Browns first-rounder Danny Shelton. “They list him at 335 but that’s a distant memory,” said former Colts GM Bill Polian on SXM Radio. “He’s probably in the 360 range, and is a mountain versus the run.” The Pats were 20th against the run last season. … Oakland pitcher Sean Manaea was riding high in April after no-hitting the Red Sox, but shot down in May with a 1-4 record and 7.18 ERA. … Giants’ slugger Pablo Sandoval took Arizona pitcher Clay Buchholz deep in the first inning on Wednesday. Names sound familiar? … The Donald had little to lose by shunning the Eagles; Hillary got 82.3 percent of the vote in Philadelphia County in 2016. … Garry Brown’s gotta love a name like Travis Swaggerty, the Pirates’ first round pick out of South Alabama. … Former Patriot Lawyer Milloy’s daughter Amirah Milloy played collegiate softball for her dad’s alma mater the Washington Huskies this season. … The contentious Keith Olbermann did ESPN’s radio broadcast of Yanks-Astros on Memorial Day. Olbermann and ESPN have been on-again, off-again more times than George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.