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Justify excitement could help Belmont Stakes gamblers, experts say

Justify works out under exercise rider Humberto Gomez

Justify works out under exercise rider Humberto Gomez during a training session at Belmont Park on Thursday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Unproven horses, an unusually long track and “dead money” flooding the betting pools are just some of the complexities facing those looking to turn a profit on Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, horse racing experts say.

But those factors — multiplied this year by the chance of chestnut colt Justify taking the race, and with it the Triple Crown — also present opportunities for savvier gamblers, they said.

“That uncertainty comes with the possibility that there is value,” said Joe Dougherty, director of simulcasting for the New York Racing Association. “That’s what every handicapper is looking for.”

At one and a half miles, Belmont’s dirt loop is longer than most horse races, and none of the 3-year-old thoroughbreds have ever run the distance in an official contest before, Dougherty said.

That makes predicting their performance harder, experts said.

But the finer points of the contest may be irrelevant to the many thousands expected to put their money on the only horse with the chance to make history.

“Fans want to see a Triple Crown winner,” said Kevin Cox, professional handicapper for saratogabets.com.

Cox was referring to Justify, who won this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and is Saturday’s odds-on favorite.

“When there’s a Triple Crown on the line, there’s a lot of what professionals would call ‘dead money’ in the pools,” Cox said. “People that bet with their hearts and not their heads.”

That’s good news for the unsentimental gambler, according to Cox, who said wagers such as “pick threes” and “show” bets can often be more lucrative in such cases.

Still others may follow the once-common strategy of betting against the would-be Triple Crown winner, Dougherty said.

That approach emerged during the 37-year drought between Affirmed’s Triple Crown championship in 1978 and American Pharoah’s in 2015, when 13 thoroughbreds won the Preakness and the Derby, only to fail at Belmont.

Winning big may be beside the point for many of those betting this weekend, for whom an uncashed wager on a Triple Crown winner could be prize enough.

Such was the case in 2015, when more than 90,000 of the $2 bets placed on American Pharoah at Belmont Park were uncashed by the Monday after the race, according to NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna.

Among those who held on to the uncashed tickets was Ron Nicholas, one of many American Pharoah backers seeking to sell a winning ticket on eBay.

Nicholas, who was born in Greenport and now lives in Colorado, is listing his $2 winning ticket for $4.95.

“I’m not trying to make a killing,” he said.

Nicholas, 70, is also holding onto another winning ticket for himself.

“They’re just souvenirs,” he said. “It’s nice to have these memories of the younger times.”

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