JUSTIFY, RESTORING HOPE - Justify took his first tour around Belmont Park on Thursday morning with a strong 1 3/8-mile gallop.
With Bob Baffert and Mike Smith looking on, along with a large media contingent, Justify took to the track looking full of energy.
"He just floated over this track. He was happy. He was aggressive,'' said Baffert. "He went about 1 3/8 miles and jogged back the wrong way. He was just getting over the track really well. He couldn't have looked any better coming around there. He looks like a horse that is flourishing."
Justify, owned in partnership by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing, arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday afternoon.
"He went around there like he's been here before,'' added Baffert. "He's a very intelligent horse."
During the gallop under cool and cloudy skies with exercise rider Humberto Gomez aboard, Baffert said another horse unexpectedly came up to Justify.
"A horse came up to him, and we usually have ear plugs in, but we didn't do it today because I thought it would be really quiet today, but we'll put them back in tomorrow. He was a little fresh," said Baffert. The trainer pointed out that Justify does not race with earplugs and only has them in during training.
"He worked Monday, walked Tuesday and shipped yesterday. He looked great at the barn. I couldn't be happier."
Baffert said Justify would go through the same routine on Friday, and would not school in the paddock or the gate before the race.
"He'll probably get schooled in the one hole sitting in there a long time,'' said Baffert.
Justify is looking at his sixth race in less than four months, something that might take a toll on other horses.
"Six races is a lot, but we've seen that he thrives on it,'' said Baffert. "The way he's built, his muscles, you could see he's just a big, strong, powerful, horse. He's just a muscled-up strong athlete. I just want to see him run his race. If he runs his race, he's just a superior animal. I want him to show up, that's all. I'm focusing on if he shows up, if he's good enough, he'll get it done."
Smith, the 52-year-old rider getting his first opportunity to go for a Triple Crown, was impressed with Justify's gallop.
"He looked very nice going over the ground, looks really good,'' said Smith. "He should like the track."
Baffert's other Belmont horse, Restoring Hope, also galloped around the track, and the trainer said, "He's doing well."
BLENDED CITIZEN - Greg Hall, SAYJAY Racing and Brooke Hubbard's Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen returned to Belmont Park's main track early Thursday morning and galloped his standard 1 ½ mile..
The long-striding colt by Proud Citizen was unfazed as a crew removed a huge branch which fell outside barn 17 before training hours. According to trainer Doug O'Neill's security, Marvin Bostock, while the others stared out of their stalls in curiosity, Blended Citizen used the opportunity to catch up on some rest, and slept through the noise from chainsaws.
"They say the great ones sleep a lot, and if that's true, he'd be the greatest," Bostock said.
The Belmont Stakes will be the fifth start this year for Blended Citizen, who was scratched as an also-eligible for the Kentucky Derby after falling short in qualifying points. Third in the February 17 El Camino Real Derby, the colt returned with blinkers and won the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park before running fifth in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Instead of the Derby, Blended Citizen traveled to New York for the May 12 Peter Pan, in which he made a six-wide journey and was up late to win by 1 ½ lengths. The victory makes him the only Belmont horse to have a victory at the track.
"We were always hoping to run him in a longer race, and this is it," said assistant trainer Leandro Mora. "So if he doesn't do any good, at least we tried it. We got the shot."
A Belmont victory would mark Blended Citizen as the eighth horse to sweep the Peter Pan and Belmont double. Others who have achieved the distinction are Counterpoint (1951), Gallant Man (1957), Cavan (1958), Coastal (1979), Danzig Connection (1986), A.P. Indy (1992), and Tonalist (2014).
FREE DROP BILLY - If Free Drop Billy is the horse to deny Justify's on Saturday, don't be surprised if trainer Dale Romans credits karma.
Tuesday evening, his first night in New York for what will be his ninth Belmont, Romans attended the New York Mets home game against Baltimore that followed a post-position draw and roundtable discussion for the race hosted at Citi Field in Queens.
At one point during the game, Romans left his seat in the left field stands and came across a young woman in her mid-20s who appeared to be choking. Without hesitation, the Louisville, Kentucky native stepped in to help.
"I came up the back of the steps toward the rest room and this lady and her daughter are there. She's kind of bent over a table, one of those little things around the post where you put your condiments and stuff. You could tell she was in distress," Romans said. "Her mother keeps telling the security guard, 'Get somebody, help her, get somebody.' I walked over and said, 'Do you want the Heimlich?' And she shook her head yes. She couldn't speak.
"I grabbed her and two or three pops and she got rid of what was in her throat, got up and she was fine. She might not have died but it definitely got her out of distress. She might have died; she couldn't breathe. It was interesting, to say the least," he added. "Maybe I get a little divine intervention Saturday."
Romans, who has finished third in the Belmont four times including 2015 when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought between Triple Crowns, said it was the second time he had performed the Heimlich Maneuver. The other came several years ago on Buzz Chace, a prominent bloodstock agent who died of cancer in 2013.
"We were playing golf one day and he got a hot dog stuck in his throat. He was bad. He would have died, but I got it out of him," Romans said. "Everybody should learn the Heimlich."
Free Drop Billy, the only Grade 1 winner in the Belmont besides Justify, got his first look at Belmont Park with one lap around the 1 ½-mile main track under exercise rider Juan Segundo shortly before 9 a.m. He arrived in New York Wednesday afternoon on the same flight as Justify, and the two were on the track together Thursday morning.
"What'd you think? I thought he looked good, real good," Romans said of Free Drop Billy, a 30-1 outsider on the morning line whose sire, Union Rags, upset the Romans-trained favorite Dullahan in the 2012 Belmont. "He looked excellent, about as good as he's ever looked - ears up, happy, content. He just kind of bounced around there."
Romans said Free Drop Billy will get more familiar with the expansive Belmont surroundings on his way to the track Friday morning, also after the renovation break.
"The hard part's behind us now. It's just a matter of keeping him happy," Romans said. "We'll do the same thing tomorrow, but we'll go through the paddock. We'll just give him a chance to look around."
GRONKOWSKI - Gronkowski galloped a mile and a half on Thursday morning. Trainer Chad Brown said he should be ready to compete against Justify and eight others in the "Test of the Champion."
"He's going good and looks terrific," Brown said. "He looked fine today."
Owned by Phoenix Thoroughbred III, Gronkowski drew post 6. Seven Belmont Stakes winners have started from that post since 1905 but none since Lemon Drop Kid rallied from eighth to win the 1999 edition.
"It's fine, I like the post, and we'll see what happens going into the race," Brown said.
Listed at 12-1 on the morning line, Gronkowski has put the two-time reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer in the rare spot of being an underdog in a big race, with 4-5 favorite Justify's Triple Crown bid drawing the bulk of the attention.
"It's less pressure, no one expects this horse to win," said Brown, who saddled 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing for his lone win in a Triple Crown race. "I feel like he has a legitimate chance."
HOFBURG - While a cursory search through the pedigree of Juddmonte Farm's homebred Hofburg might suggest an affinity for turf, trainer Bill Mott - who has enjoyed much success with grass horses during his Hall of Fame career - took a different approach with the chestnut colt.
Hofburg's dam Soothing Touch, by 1997 Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold, also produced Courtier, who was Grade 2-placed as a 3-year-old colt on turf, and the millionaire filly Emollient, a daughter of 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker who recorded four Grade 1 victories - all over turf or synthetic in 2013-14.
His sire, however, is Tapit, a leading North American stallion who has produced three Belmont Stakes winners, including Tapwrit last year.
"You never know," Mott said of a horse's surface preference. "Knowing his half-sister, who we trained and won several Grade 1s with - we won Grade 1s on the turf, Grade 1s on the synthetic, and also a maiden and allowance on the dirt - that's always in the back of your mind. Which way is he going to go? Once you get the horse ready, you wonder what's going to be best for him.
"He always worked very well on the dirt," he noted. "As far as I can remember, we only breezed him once on the turf and it probably wasn't as good as his dirt works had been. So, we went back to the dirt with him and that's where we've been ever since."
In four career starts, all on dirt, Hofburg was fourth in his unveiling in September of his 2-year-old year, broke his maiden in his sophomore bow in March, and finished second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby before finishing seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
Hofburg, tabbed as the 9-2 second choice on the morning line, will be ridden from post 4 by Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won the 2016 Belmont aboard Creator.
NOBLE INDY, VINO ROSSO - While every trainer saddling a horse in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets owns at least one victory in a Triple Crown race, D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher lead the group with four and three wins, respectively.
According to recent records, Lukas, 82, would become the oldest trainerto win the Belmont should Bravazo take the honors. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was 81 when he sent out Nashua to win the 1955 Belmont.
Pletcher, should either Noble Indy or Vino Rosso win, would become the first trainer since Lukas won three straight from 1994-96 to take back-to-back editions of the "Test of the Champion," having won last year with Tapwrit.
Pletcher was just 32 years old when he saddled his first Belmont starter, Impeachment, who finished fifth behind the Lukas-trained Commendable in 2000.
Seven years later, Pletcher won his first Classic when he sent out the filly Rags to Riches to win the Belmont in a thrilling finish over eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.
"Of course, it was special with her being a filly, but it was a remarkable race," Pletcher said. "There were so many different emotions going through your mind, starting with her stumbling badly at the start, and thinking you've lost all chance right at the beginning, to regaining some hope midway through, to thinking you might win it at the top of the stretch and then fearing you might get passed late. it was one of those races that really gave you every conceivable emotion during the course of one race. It was a mile-and-a-half roller coaster ride, for sure."
Pletcher, who also won the Belmont in 2013 with Palace Malice, said he felt good about the way his pair are training going into the race.
"They've had a good five weeks, they've had two good breezes, and I like the way they've been galloping over the main track," he said. "At the same time, we know how challenging this race is and how formidable Justify is. You feel good about the way your horses are doing, but still mindful of how difficult it would be to win."