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Belmont Stakes: If Justify can set leisurely pace, he’ll cruise to victory and win Triple Crown

Justify, with Mike Smith atop, wins the Preakness

Justify, with Mike Smith atop, wins the Preakness Stakes. Credit: AP / Patrick Semansky

They blast out of the gates, hitting full speed in a couple of strides, and after a quarter-mile in 22 seconds or so, it’s over. Sneeze, blink and you miss it. Quarter horse racing is all about breaking well and establishing position immediately. Oddly, that’s also usually the winning formula for the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, even though it’s 1¼ miles farther and takes 2½ minutes.

Newbie handicappers tend to assume that the longer the race, the more likely that the pacesetters will fade. Not so, even though it’s counterintuitive to think early acceleration can be the ultimate weapon in a marathon.

From 1982-86, Woody Stephens trained five consecutive Belmont winners, a record as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Stephens always said, “The Belmont is a speed horse’s race.” Not many closers have enough juice to make up a lot of ground at a distance they weren’t bred to handle.

If the pace is moderate or slow, the leader can relax and keep going. That’s how American Pharoah nailed down the 2015 Triple Crown for trainer Bob Baffert, ending a 36-year drought. After Pharoah coasted alone through a half-mile in a leisurely 48 4/5 seconds and a mile in a no-sweat 1:37 4/5, the stretch run became a deafening coronation. With no pressure, “The Test of the Champion” was no test at all.

If the undefeated Justify can work out that kind of trip June 9 at Belmont Park, he’ll probably become the 13th to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont.

D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of four Belmont champions, will saddle Preakness runner-up Bravazo, whose strong late move was aided by a speed duel with Good Magic that took something out of Justify. If the heavy favorite gets clear by himself this time, good luck catching him.

“Justify is the best horse,” Lukas said. “He’s got what it takes. I like his physique. He’s a big, strong horse who gets over the ground well. He makes his own trip and determines where he wants to be. He makes his own luck, and he’ll probably do that in the Belmont.”

Every so often, the Belmont winner comes from far back — Creator (2016), Jazil (2006) — and in the 21st century, only American Pharoah and Da’ Tara (2008) led throughout. But there’s no greater attribute than controlled speed, and no 3-year-old has more of it than Justify does.

Like Lukas, Baffert made his mark with quarter horses in the Southwest and Southern California. Both switched to thoroughbreds after training multiple champions on the short tracks. Each had to “retrain his mind,” as Baffert said, to adapt, but the essential didn’t change.

“Bob and I have a similar mindset,” Lukas said. “We both like horses with tactical speed. You very seldom see a Baffert horse or a Lukas horse drop way out of it. They’ll get into the race. They may not be 1-2, but they’ll be up close.”

Justify’s jockey, Mike Smith, also got started with quarter horses. At 14 he was already making $200 a week riding the dusty bush tracks of his native New Mexico. Thirty-eight years later, “Big Money Mike” is the sport’s top big-race rider, and he never forgot his first lesson.

“Going into the Derby, my main concern really was just getting him out of the gate,” Smith said. “I knew if I could get him out of there and get him into a big rhythm, he could go fast.”

It’s Baffert’s record fifth attempt at the Triple Crown, and a bad start led to his only noncompetitive bid in the finale. In 2002, War Emblem, a need-the-lead type, stumbled badly at the break and was bumped. After being rushed toward the front, he tired and faded to eighth.

Baffert admits he’s always on “pins and needles” before a major stakes, with his paramount concern the start. In Justify’s five races, that’s never been a problem. The big chestnut colt trained so well this past week at Churchill Downs that Baffert is expressing confidence, not fretting over “what ifs.” Justify effortlessly breezed a quick half-mile in 46.80 seconds Tuesday, making Baffert wish he didn’t have to wait another week to run him.

“I was surprised by the time and how easy he was doing it,” he said.

Justify will have another timed workout, probably Monday, before flying Wednesday from Louisville to New York. He’ll be stabled at the Belmont barn of Syosset native and resident John Terranova, who with his wife, Tonja, also hosted American Pharoah.

“Justify is so beautiful. He looks like a giant quarter horse,” Baffert said. “He’s got muscle on muscle and he has a presence about him. He’s a big, quick son of a gun, and light on his feet. I think to win the Triple Crown, you have to be a big, strong horse and be able to handle a lot of situations. This horse is just that.”

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