When it comes to both humans and horses, fields made messy by weather often are assumed to benefit the underdog.
But that will not necessarily be the case if rain muddies the track at Belmont Park on Saturday evening, as forecasts indicate it might.
Beyond that, NBC analysts Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss agree that a wet track could help Justify handle the fatigue that has derailed previous Triple Crown attempts.
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt Justify,” Bailey said Wednesday on a call to promote NBC’s coverage. “He’s won twice over these kinds of tracks in both attempts. But also, rain has a tendency to a certain extent of making Belmont’s main course a little bit faster, a little bit tighter.
“It’s predominantly sand, and when water gets over sand, it has a tendency to compact, making it a little faster track, which would make it a little less demanding. For a horse like Justify who is trying to do this three races in five weeks, the less demanding the track, the better. So I think it would actually probably help the favorite.”
Said Moss, “It takes the wild card out of the equation. We know from what we’ve seen already in the last five weeks Justify handles it, Bravazo handles it, and Bill Mott is very confident that Hofburg handles it, and Tenfold handled it well in the Preakness. In the Derby, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy didn’t appear to handle it as well.
“So looking at past performances is all we have to go on; that seems to be what we would look for if it does come up wet again on Saturday.”
Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Belmont Stakes winner, said the sandy nature of the track makes some moisture a plus.
“As most people know, the water trucks on any given racetrack will spread water on the track between every race,” he said. “They have varying degrees and varying amounts. But with a sand-based racetrack, if it’s a windy day, if it’s a cooler, windier, drier day, it’s even more of a challenge for horses because it’s almost like running over a beach where part of the water covers the beach and part of it does not.
“It’s much more tiring on the top where the water has not come over than it is over the part of the beach that waters back out. So if we were to have rain, it would pack the track a little bit more and make it a lot easier for the horses to get over it and less demanding.”
Race caller Larry Collmus said he is not rooting against wet weather.
“I’d prefer rain to sun because of the conditions at Belmont Park when they turn for home with the horses at the top of the stretch,” he said. “The sun sets right behind them, and it changes the silk colors of the horses and makes it a little more difficult for me.
“So a little rain is OK, although I think just clouds would be fine so we have a crowd that doesn’t get wet and maybe enjoys another piece of history.”
NBC’s announcers did their part to hype the event, but they did not shy from the fact that the buzz surrounding this Triple Crown bid is not at the level of 2015, when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought.
“Anyone that was here for the 2015 Belmont will never forget the level of the crowd reaction after the horse crossed the finish line,” Moss said. “It was the Super Bowl-level roar that went on for minutes and minutes. It’s 37 years of pent-up frustration, basically, from the fans who realized they had really witnessed something historic.
“We’re probably fooling ourselves if we think it will reach that level if Justify wins, but, I mean, hey, you can go back in the Google archives or any other newspaper archives to the 1970s, and what you’ll find is that after Secretariat in ’73 and Seattle Slew in ’77, there was talk about there not being as much buzz for the ’78 Belmont when you had Affirmed and Alydar, and especially the ’79 Belmont when Spectacular Bid had a chance to sweep.
“And we look back at Affirmed and Alydar as one of the great Belmont Stakes of all time, historically. So it’s still, obviously . . . a tremendously historic moment anytime we can see it happen.”
Host Mike Tirico said NBC expects a huge audience regardless.
“The one metric we have on our side of it is television ratings,” he said. “For the most part through the month of May, there are very few shows that match the Kentucky Derby for number of viewers. The Belmont ratings will go three or four times what it otherwise would have been because there is a Triple Crown on the line.”
Will it actually happen again? Many in the horse racing community are skeptical.
“I feel that Justify is going to have a more difficult time in the Belmont than he has in the first two,” Bailey said. “Is the tank empty? Does he have enough to finish it off? The most likely answer is it will be a challenge for him.
“I think the horse most likely to beat him would be Hofburg, trained by Bill Mott. He had some trouble in the Kentucky Derby and now he’s had some time off. So a mile-and-a-half suits him just fine.”
Said Moss, “If he runs the Preakness back again in the Belmont, he loses. So it becomes a question, as Jerry said, of how much gas he has left in the tank. Is he capable of now running for the third time in five weeks and stepping his game back up to where it was in the Kentucky Derby, or is his schedule of all of these races compressed into a short period of time going to jump up and prevent him from sweeping the Triple Crown or putting him in the name of so many other great horses that tried and couldn’t get it done?
“I agree with Jerry completely that Hofburg is the primary horse to look at, if not Justify. I would put Vino Rosso almost in that same category as well. I think historically, when you’re looking for a horse to win the Belmont, you look for horses that didn’t run in the Preakness. We’ve seen the Derby to Belmont become so successful. Todd Pletcher has basically made it his personal playground, and I think those are the two you need to look at primarily, if not Justify.”