BLENDED CITIZEN - Blended Citizen has a tall order in his first Grade 1 assignment, but Stephen Young of SAYJAY Racing, a part owner, says he's happy to have the colt and that trainer Doug O'Neill has gotten him to this point.
"We're lucky to have him," Young said. "We have a budget of $100,000, and the only reason we got him is because he was a really late foal. It took him a while to mature, and Doug was real good, and as patient as he could be with him.
"When he and Leandro put the blinkers on him, he got a little bit better then got a little bit better on his own after that. He's going to be competitive I think. I mean, Justify might get a 48 opening quarter, and he might be sitting back there 15 lengths behind after the race, but you have to run and find out."
The Kentucky-bred was an $85,000 purchase at the OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training. He brings a long stride - which he used to his advantage in the Peter Pan - a style that has to be used early according to jockey Kyle Frey.
Young and the rest of his partners are confident, but a race like the "Test of the Champion" leaves a lot to ponder.
"He's competitive when he has somebody in front of him, then he runs hard," said Young. "Now, if he's good enough to get these guys or not on Saturday, I don't have any idea. I'm a pretty good handicapper, and I can't even tell. If I could, I'd win a couple million bucks here.
"It takes so much to get the horse right to the race, and this horse is pretty sound. My only thing is the company he's faced in the past may not be this good. We're up there with the big boys right now. He didn't get a good taste of Good Magic in the Blue Grass, but he didn't have a very good race. He kind of clipped heels a very little bit in the beginning, and then at the end the guy came out in front of him and made him stop. I don't think he would get Good Magic that day, but he might have run second. This race tomorrow is a little further, and I think he wants further. I think we can get a little lucky tomorrow."
Blended Citizen could become the eighth starter to win both the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes, joining Counterpoint (1951), Gallant Man (1957), Cavan (1958), Coastal (1979), Danzig Connection (1986), A.P. Indy (1992), and Tonalist (2014).
FREE DROP BILLY - He's never had a horse deny a Triple Crown bid, but Dale Romans is the only trainer in the Belmont with a victory over a Triple Crown champion. Keen Ice was 16-1 when he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.
"(Justify) has to beat himself. We all know it. I think that he's the best horse, but he might not be able to go a mile and a half. He might go too fast early. A lot of things can happen," Romans said. "We've seen a lot of horses come in here that looked like there was no way they could lose, and get beat. It's good to be here. It's a showcase, but we're here to beat him. We're a long shot, but I think we're a live long shot. There are a lot of reasons to be here, including you've got to make him earn it. It's not worth it if he doesn't earn it."
For the second straight day since arriving Wednesday afternoon from Kentucky, Free Drop Billy galloped 1 1/2 mile over Belmont's main track on a muggy Friday morning under exercise rider Juan Segundo. On the way back to the barn, horse and rider had a solitary tour of the paddock.
"I thought he went good. We'll see how he does. It looked like he was bouncing over the track and he was full of himself," Romans said. "He sweats a lot, but he's not nervous. He's like Shackleford that way. There's a difference between nervous sweat and regulating your body temperature. We'd be worried if he didn't sweat."
Free Drop Billy, housed two barns from Justify on the Belmont backstretch, trailed the Triple Crown candidate - and the hordes of cameras and photographers that record his every move - on the horse path during their walk to the track.
"He gets all the TV cameras and we get the iPhones," Romans quipped. "But they take a nice picture."
Free Drop Billy is a chestnut son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags out of the Giant's Causeway mare Trensa. His half-brother, Hawkbill, won the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic in March, contested at 1 1/2 mile on the turf.
"We're the only other grade 1 winner. With the exception of a couple races, he's been right there every time, with good horses," Romans said. "He's got the pedigree for it. He actually, I think, has the best distance pedigree. That's what we're going to try to hang our hat on."
Steeped in and respectful of racing's storied past, Romans was surprised when told that this year's Belmont features a statistical anomaly - all eight trainers in the race have won at least one Triple Crown event. Romans' came with Shackleford in the 2011 Preakness.
"That's interesting. I did not know that. All of us, huh? That's pretty cool," he said. "I'm glad I'm not the one that didn't."
GRONKOWSKI - Trainer Chad Brown said it's all systems go for Phoenix Thoroughbred III's Gronkowski.
"Everything is good. His training is done now," Brown said. "We've asked him to work twice, and I thought he worked real well. I think we put him in good position to give a good account of himself if he's fit enough and can stay the mile and a half. All week, I've been impressed with this horse."
Gronkowski drew post 6 in the 10-horse field and is 12-1 on the morning line. The equine Gronkowski is expected to meet his namesake, New England Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, Saturday afternoon.
"Hopefully if they named it after me, it's just a beast of a horse, it's fast and it's ready to roll," Gronkowski told Sports Illustrated's Monday Morning Quarterback.
Gronkowski the horse will make his North American debut after posting four wins and a runner-up finish in six starts racing exclusively in England.
Brown, a native of Mechanicville, New York, is a Patriots fan and said Gronkowski the football player's visit to Belmont Park can be good for the sport.
"Anytime we can bring some positive publicity to this great sport we work in, it's a great thing," Brown said. "I really hope this horse has success tomorrow because I think it can be a great thing all around. To meet one of the all-time great tight ends is exciting for me and is a nice little perk."
HOFBURG - The lightly raced son of Tapit, whose progeny has won three of the last four editions of the Belmont, is the least experienced runner in the field, but he has been getting better with every start. Put in the Florida Derby with just a maiden win to his credit, Hofburg rallied well to finish second behind Audible at odds of 8-1.
There was considerable buzz surrounding him heading into the Kentucky Derby, but arguably he didn't get a chance to prove whether or not the hype was warranted. After being stymied in traffic around the far turn and at the head of the lane, the Juddmonte Farms color-bearer finished fastest of all through the stretch, offering his proponents a glimpse of the ability they'd been touting.
Tomorrow, his backers should get a fair chance to see how good he really is, according to trainer Bill Mott.
"We had a good morning training all the way around," said Mott. "He seems to still be going around the racetrack good. You just hope that you're dealing with a horse that's genetically capable of dealing with the mile and a half. I think we have that."
Mott, a veteran of the sport, admits he still feels the intensity of gearing up for a Triple Crown race.
"We maybe put a little bit of pressure on ourselves, but that's because we're anxious to run and anxious to win," he said. "You don't want to make any mistakes. You get on edge with every move because you don't want to make a mistake. You know once you get him over there, there's nothing you can do. You turn him over to the rider and you race. We can't ride him.
"Our job is to get him there safely, in one piece, and feeling good," he added. "That's why we get uptight. For me, it's not about winning or losing, it's getting him there to give him an opportunity to show what he can do. If I get butterflies or get on edge, it's worrying about screwing something up."
Hofburg's growing fan base will also have butterflies Saturday, but they should know leaving the far turn whether or not their Belmont darling will be in with a chance. Contrary to what some believe, it has historically not been advantageous to be a deep closer in the race. Ideally, Mott would like his charge to be within a few lengths at the quarter pole.
"I don't want to give him too much to do through the stretch," the trainer said. "Irad and I will talk tomorrow morning. We're drawn in the middle. I like our post position, but you never know until they open the gates."
RESTORING HOPE - Some say that Restoring Hope, Bob Baffert's other entry, is capable of setting a pace that could be helpful in stablemate Justify's bid to become the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday. However, this colt is owned by Gary and Mary West, who have no ownership interest in Justify.
Baffert says Restoring Hope fits in as well as any other horse in the field.
"I expect Restoring Hope to run a big race, too,'' said Baffert. "Restoring Hope is training really well. And he's well-bred to go 1 ½ miles."
Restoring Hope is a son of 2000 European Horse of the Year Giant's Causeway, out of Symbol of Freedom by Tapit, who has sired three of the last four Belmont Stakes winners.
Despite a 12th-place finish in the Pat Day Mile in the slop at Churchill Downs on May 5, Baffert said he believed early on the colt was Derby worthy. Prior to that race, he ran second in his first two starts, and then broke his maiden on Feb. 2 and finished third in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7.
"I really thought he was going to be in the Kentucky Derby,'' said Baffert. "He showed me that kind of talent. I think he's just as good as any of the horses in there."
Florent Geroux will be aboard for the first time. Baffert said Restoring Hope will run without blinkers.
"We think he'll run better without them. He was getting a little aggressive,'' said Baffert.
As for the chances of his own horse spoiling his bid for a second Triple Crown, Baffert said: "The owners, they'd love to knock off Justify. That's why we're in the game."
TENFOLD - For the first time this week, Steve Asmussen was on hand Friday morning to check on Tenfold, and he said he came away pleased with how the Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred is progressing into Saturday's race. Tenfold jogged once Friday around Belmont Park's one-mile training track.
It was a quieter morning for Tenfold than Thursday, when he galloped approximately 1 1/4 mile and visited the starting gate. He will walk on Saturday morning, typical of all Asmussen horses on a race day.
"He's a beautiful horse. He's got a great frame, a really nice way of going," said Asmussen, who arrived in New York Thursday afternoon to see 2-year-old filly Lady Apple run second in the $150,000 Astoria.
"Being here at the races yesterday, it was a little concerning because the racetrack was pretty dry. As big as he is, hopefully the racetrack is a little tighter for Saturday afternoon," he said, "but he's coming into it in very good physical shape."
Asmussen won the 2016 Belmont with Creator. Tenfold's sire is Curlin, the two-time Horse of the Year trained by Asmussen that ran second to filly Rags to Riches in 2007.
Tenfold will break from post position 7 of 10 in the Belmont under jockey Ricardo Santana Jr., who was aboard for the Preakness as well as debut and allowance victories over the winter at Oaklawn Park. Victor Espinoza rode Tenfold to a fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 14.
"It's kind of a hard race to figure out because of common training interests and common ownership interests as far as exactly what everybody's going to do with the ability they do have," Asmussen said. "With that in mind, just hopefully he's away from the gates cleanly, gets into a nice big rhythm and is capable of running a mile and a half race at this level."
Edited NYRA release with additional content by Dick Downey