Billy Reed: Bad luck the only likely reason for a Justify miss at Belmont

Billy Reed: Bad luck the only likely reason for a Justify miss at Belmont
Justify suffered some minor bruising after the Kentucky Derby, but shook it off and won the Preakness, setting up a possible date with history on June 9. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is going for his second Triple Crown in three years. (Source: John P. Wise/WAVE3.com)
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is going for his second Triple Crown in three years. (Source: John P. Wise/WAVE3.com)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – On Saturday at Belmont Park on Long Island, Justify will either become thoroughbred racing's 13th Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton in 1919, or the 21st to fall short since Pensive in 1944.

Generally speaking, the reasons for the losses tend to fall into one of the following groups: Bad Racing Luck, Not Quite Good Enough, Injury, Poor Jockey Ride, or Horses for Courses. If Justify loses, chances are that he'll be put in one of those categories.

It should be noted that nine of the 21 finished second, five were third, and one fourth. But hitting the board is scant consolation when racing's grandest prize is on the line.

Bad Racing Luck

The poster boy for this category is War Emblem, who went to his knees coming out of the starting gate in 2002 and never had a chance. He struggled home eighth to the longshot Sarava, trained by Kenny McPeek.

Not Quite Good Enough

Pensive (second to Bounding Home in 1944) never won another race. Forward Pass (second to Stage Door Johnny in 1968) was a bit counterfeit, having won the Kentucky Derby when Dancer's Image was disqualified because a then-illegal medication was detected in his urinalysis.

Kauai King (fourth in 1966), Pleasant Colony (third in 1981), Alysheba (fourth in 1987), Silver Charm (second in 1997), Funny Cide (third in 2003), and California Chrome (fourth in 2014) were just outrun and had no excuses.

Injury

Tim Tam fractured a sesamoid in a 1958 Belmont duel with Cavan, and never raced again. Three years later, come-from-behind hero Carry Back failed to overcome an injured left front ankle.

In 1969, Majestic Prince had a leg injury and trainer Johnny Longden didn't want to run him in the Belmont. But he was overruled by owner Frank McMahon. The unbeaten Prince finished second to Arts & Letters, his nemesis throughout the Triple Crown, and never raced again.

Two years later, Canonero II, of Venezuela, also had physical problems that should have kept him out of the Belmont. But owner Edward Baptista, sensitive to all the Hispanics who were pulling for their hero, ran him anyway and he finished second to Pass Catcher. The next week, Sports Illustrated put the colt on its cover with the billing, "Canonero Should Not Have Run."

In 1999, Charismatic had the lead in the stretch, but began giving up ground and finished only third. Just after the finish, jockey Chris Antley quickly pulled him up, jumped off his back, and held an injured foreleg off the ground until medical help could arrive.

In 2008, Big Brown's bad ankles were the talk of the Triple Crown. He held up well in the Derby and Preakness, but came apart in the Belmont and did not finish.

Poor Jockey Ride

In 1979, jockeys Ronnie Franklin and Angel Cordero Jr. engaged in an ugly racial spat that may have cost Franklin's mount, the brilliant Spectacular Bid, the Belmont and Triple Crown.

It began in the Florida Derby, when Cordero and his buddy, Jorge Velasquez, teamed up on Franklin, taunting him throughout the race and distracted him into riding against them instead of just winning the race.

Afterward, as I was interviewing Franklin in the jockey's room, Cordero and Velasquez were laughing and talking in Spanish across the room. For a moment, I thought Franklin, who was reared in a blue-collar neighborhood of Baltimore, was going after them. Instead, he muttered a racial epithet under his breath.

The week of the Belmont, Franklin and Cordero got into a fight in the jocks' room at Belmont Park. So bad blood was boiling as Bid went to the post as the 2-to-5 favorite in the Belmont.

Once again, Franklin let himself get distracted by Cordero and his buddies, which had much to do with Bid finishing a shocking third. After the race, trainer Bud Delp also claimed that Bid had stepped on a safety pin and ran on an infected hoof. But few bought that story, even after veterinarian Alex Harthill supported Delp's claim.

Franklin never rode Bid again.

In 2004, Smarty Jones looked like a sure thing in mid-stretch, but was overtaken by Birdstone in the last eighth of a mile to finish second. Jockey Stewart Elliott, riding in his first Belmont, was criticized for getting impatient and sending Smarty to the lead too soon.

Horses for Courses

The Belmont's mile-and-a-half distance was too far for Northern Dancer, so he finished third to Quadrangle, who loved the track, in 1964.

In 1989, although Sunday Silence had held off Easy Goer on a sloppy track in the Derby and nosed him out in a dramatic stretch duel in the Preakness, the writers and public loved Easy Goer in the Belmont.

It was his home track, and its sweeping turns accommodated Easy Goer's long stride and powerful stretch kick perfectly. He won easily, in a time then surpassed only by Secretariat in 1973.

Sunday Silence was a respectable second, and beat Easy Goer again in that year's Breeders Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.

It should be noted that Easy Goer's sire, Alydar, was expected to wrest the Triple Crown from Affirmed in 1978, but couldn't get past the gritty colt ridden by Steve Cauthen and trained by Laz Barrera.

So which of these groupings should worry the Justify folks the most?

Forget poor jockey ride. At 52, Mike Smith is the best big-race rider in the nation. He will do nothing foolish to get his colt beat.

Forget not quite good enough. Justify already has beaten most of the Belmont field convincingly. There is no reason to think any of them will improve enough to catch him.

Forget horses for courses. Justify has proven he can run anywhere, on any kind of surface and in any kind of weather. Belmont will suit him just as well as any of his competitors.

Forget injury. Although rumors always swirl around Triple Crown candidates, Justify looks just as bright and healthy as he did when trainer Bob Baffert brought him to Louisville for the Derby.

Also, neither Baffert nor his owners would run him if he were less than 100 percent. There's too much money to be made in other races and the breeding shed to take foolish chances.

So that leaves poor racing luck.

As always, this is strictly out of human control and entirely up to the racing gods. Diversify is the best horse. He would be a deserving Triple Crown winner. But sometimes luck is more important than talent.

But I'm picking Justify and boxing him with Hofburg, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, and Noble Indy, a longshot trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Javier Castellano.

I will feel good for trainer Dale Romans if he wins with Free Drop Billy, who is appealing to me because of his name.

But I will not diversify. And I'll be rooting for Mike Smith to get the big horse home in what could be his easiest Triple Crown race.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.

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