BLENDED CITIZEN - Gary Hall, SayJay Racing and Brooke Hubbard's Belmont Stakes starter Blended Citizen will navigate from the outside post 10. The colt galloped once around the main track early Wednesday morning, and will continue the same regimen until race day.
The Doug O'Neill-trained colt by Proud Citizen is the lone starter in the 150th Belmont Stakes who owns a start and a victory at Belmont after he won the May 12 Peter Pan by 1 ½ lengths.
The post-position draw was just another step closer to race day, and not a major concern for Team O'Neill according to assistant trainer Leandro Mora.
"Being outside helps, but it's a long race so you have plenty of time," Mora said. "It really doesn't matter much. It's not like the Kentucky Derby where everybody is fighting for position. We're happy. First of all, it's a 10-horse field, and he's going to be the last one to load. Usually there's less stress and pressure, and now Justify is on the inside, he got the number that nobody wanted to have. So, for us it's good."
The big brown Kentucky-bred was labeled a slow learner early on. After three starts on dirt where he was unplaced, he was tried on grass where he began to progress, but it wasn't until he debuted with blinkers in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park that the colt turned the corner.
"Early on at Santa Anita my exercise rider was telling me that the horse was seeing a lot when he was training in the morning," said Mora. "We decided to put blinkers on in training. We brought him to Golden Gate, and I mentioned it to Doug to put blinkers on him, but I forgot to enter with blinkers, so the paddock judge took them off, and we still finished third. In the very next race, we remembered to enter with blinkers, and that's when he won the Jeff Ruby. He also had them in the Blue Grass, but that was a tough race. Now he's getting more and more mature, but we want to keep them on."
Riding a horse with Blended Citizen's style takes a jockey who can judge the pace as well as knowing when to send a long-striding horse according to Mora. Kyle Frey, who has been aboard the colt for his last four races and will ride in his first Belmont Stakes on Saturday, fits his horse perfectly.
"He got along with the horse really well, and he even admitted he should have been a little better in the Blue Grass," Mora said. "He got a little bit out of position, but that's horse racing. This horse doesn't have a good turn of foot, but he's a grinder, so a rider knowing the horse, he knows when he has to start making the move."
BRAVAZO - According to D. Wayne Lukas, Bravazo has settled in nicely and taken well to "Big Sandy" since arriving by van on Monday. Early Wednesday morning, he resumed light, local preparation for the "Test of the Champion" with a routine gallop.
"The trip was easy and he had a good day on the track," said Lukas, who trains Bravazo for Calumet Farm. "He just galloped and did very well. He won't do anything of any consequence between now and the race. He's fit. Now I just need to keep him happy the rest of the way."
No horse has come closer to besting the undefeated Justify than Bravazo in the Preakness - in which he fell short by a half-length over a sloppy, sealed track at Pimlico - and if things had gone a bit differently, Lukas said his horse may have been the one to wear the Black-eyed Susans.
In the early stages of the Preakness, Bravazo was sitting in the catbird seat as Justify and Good Magic, the Kentucky Derby top-two finishers, duked it out on the lead. Around the far turn, the Calumet color-bearer dropped back a few lengths with no apparent mishap, only to re-emerge from the fog in deep stretch and nearly nail Justify on the wire.
"He had a very good trip in the Preakness," said Lukas. "What we would change if we could change it, to make the outcome a little better, would be to maybe move a little earlier. When Justify came off the [far] turn, he moved and then we moved. If we moved when he moved we might have been able to upset him."
Bravazo - the only horse in the Belmont other than Justify to have contested both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness - is tied with Blended Citizen as the most experienced horse in the field, with 10 starts under his belt, including five this year. This added seasoning may be just what he needs to turn the tables on his ballyhooed rival, according to Lukas.
"The foundation, just being fit, is going to help his chances," said the trainer. "They're all doing well; I've watched them all train. With the big configuration of the racetrack and the sweeping turns, we should have a good trip. I think it'll get down to which horses have the pedigree and the stamina to finish."
As far as whether or not he believes his charge has the necessary pedigree, the Hall of Famer simply offered, "on paper it looks that way, we'll see what happens."
Should Bravazo run according to his pedigree and navigate the 1 ½ miles of the Belmont oval faster than his nine rivals, it would give Lukas a record 15th victory in a Triple Crown race.
FREE DROP BILLY - For the fourth time in his career, trainer Dale Romans brings a horse to Belmont Park with designs on spoiling a Triple Crown bid.
"Wayne Lukas told me a long time ago when I was just getting started ... he said he's made millions of dollars running horses where people told him he didn't belong, and if your horse is doing good don't be afraid to give them a chance," Romans said. "I've kind of stuck to that."
Free Drop Billy, 16th in the May 5 Kentucky Derby last time out, will break from post-position 2 in a field of 10 as a 30-1 outsider in the program.
"There's only limited chances to run in a race like this," Romans said. "After the Derby, we didn't know what we were going to do with him, but he's just trained so well and he's had some good breezes since the Derby. He's doing great and I just think he deserves a chance to run with the best. We'll try him out one more time."
Romans was seventh in the 2012 Belmont with Dullahan, who inherited the favorite's role when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another was scratched on the eve of the race with a career-ending injury. Two years later, Romans-trained Medal Count - sent off at 24-1 - was third to Tonalist but three-quarters of a length ahead of California Chrome, who dead-heated for fourth in his Triple Crown attempt.
Keen Ice was 17-1 in 2015 when he finished third behind American Pharoah.
"It's fun and exciting to be a part of something that could be historic, like when we ran third the year Pharoah won," Romans said. "Just being there and a racing fan, I was glad to be a participant and feel the electricity and energy from all the people and the fans that day. It makes the whole day a little bit more special."
Free Drop Billy trained early Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs before boarding the same flight bringing Justify to New York. They were expected to arrive at Belmont Park in early afternoon.
HOFBURG - Bill Mott said he has a plan, albeit obvious, for Saturday.
"You'd like to be within two, three lengths at the quarter-pole. I've been observing a lot of these marathons on dirt, and I don't think you want to be a dozen lengths off the lead turning for home," he said somewhat tongue in cheek.
Mott won the 1 1/2-mile Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer at odds of 12-1. This time, the 64-year-old trainer from South Dakota saddles the 9-2 second choice.
"You've got to have a horse that really wants to do that, genetically capable of doing it,'' said Mott. "That's probably one of the main ingredients. Horses are made a little different, move a little differently, and some have the capacity to do it. Training is part of it, but rather I'd rather have a horse that is capable of doing that rather than one that is challenging as a miler trying to stretch it out."
Hofburg seems to be well bred for the distance. He is by Tapit, the sire of three Belmont Stakes winners, including Tapwrit last year. On his dam side is Touch Gold, who won the 1997 Belmont and spoiled the Bob Baffert-trained Silver Charm's quest for a Triple Crown.
Hofburg finished eighth in the Derby under Irad Ortiz, Jr., then skipped the Preakness and returned to Saratoga to train up to the Belmont. The Juddmonte Farms chestnut made the trip downstate from Saratoga on Monday, and has acclimated well to Belmont Park, the trainer said.
"We got real lucky with the weather. He had a good trip on a dry road,'' said Mott. "We've been through the paddock and he's good. He was on the race track this morning; wasn't too aggressive, pretty relaxed. He's very good. We went into Churchill Downs with all the hoopla in there, and it didn't seem to faze him. He stays cool and calm. He knows what he's there for and doesn't seem to get too overly bothered. Until the race, he'll just have regular gallops each morning around Big Sandy."
Edited NYRA release