You can make a pretty strong case that in the 37 years between Triple Crowns from Affirmed in 1978 to American Pharoah in 2015, three of the horses with a chance to win them all ran well enough to win the Belmont Stakes, but just didn't, mostly due to circumstance.
Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones ran great races, but finished second. And that is the nature of horse racing, where the best horse often does not win a particular race.
Justify is the best horse in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Even those picking against the unbeaten Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will acknowledge that much.
If somebody other than Bob Baffert was training Justify, I might be joining the go-against crowd. But when you consider he trained two of the near misses and Pharoah, it is reasonable to conclude that the man understands the series and when he has a horse good enough to win the first two, that horse can win all three.
So I am right back where I have been since Feb. 18 when Justify made as good a first impression as any horse I have ever seen. That first start was no mirage as the colt is now 5-for-5 and will be favored to win the Triple Crown. The great Seattle Slew (1977) was the first and only to win it while unbeaten.
Combine the fact that Baffert and his team have made their preparation for the Triple Crown races into an art form with all the available evidence and the likely in-race scenario and I can't pick any horse but Justify.
Justify's opponents have run 48 races on dirt. In only one of them did any horse get a better speed figure than the worst figure of Justify's career, the 97 he earned in the Preakness. Vino Rosso got a 98 when he won the April 7 Wood Memorial.
When Justify crossed the finish line in the Preakness, my immediate thought was that he was all out and there was no way he was coming back in three weeks to win the Belmont against several talented horses that ran in the Derby but passed the Preakness. I was also thinking it was just too much for a horse to win the Triple Crown 111 days after his first race.
Then, I watched the Preakness video several times. What I did not realize in the moment was that Good Magic had pushed Justify way beyond the middle of the track on the backstretch and on the far turn. It was no easy trip in the Preakness. What I also did not realize was that beyond the finish line, neither of the two closers, Bravazo or Tenfold, got by Justify on the gallop out. In other words, Justify was so competitive he would not let another horse go by even after the race was over.
As the field for the Belmont began to form, I noticed how little early speed the other horses possessed. Then, I watched the videos of Justify's daily gallops and his two workouts and saw the same horse that was training before the Derby and Preakness.
So I see Justify getting an easy lead in moderate fractions and going wire to wire. Do I like him as much as I did in the Derby and Preakness? Nope. It's not because he does not have the requisite talent. It is just because of how hard it is for the modern race horse to win three classics in five weeks, especially with very talented Derby also-rans like Hofburg (seventh) and Vino Rosso (ninth), each with legitimate excuses, rested and waiting.
"Approaching the three-eighths pole, he was only about 8 lengths off the lead," said Hofburg's trainer Bill Mott. "I think by the time he got the quarter pole, he was about 15 lengths off the lead. He lost a lot of ground around the turns. He had to check and wait behind horses."
Absolutely true. And Hofburg was flying on the gallop out.
"I think our horse has plenty of stamina," Mott said. "It seems like that has been his forte. He keeps coming."
Vino Rosso's jo, John Velazquez, told me his horse hated the sloppy track in the Derby. The colt's trainer, Todd Pletcher, has really figured out the Belmont, winning three and finishing second five times with horses that rested the five weeks between Derby weekend and the Belmont. In fact, since 2000, 10 Belmont Stakes winners have come off that exact five-week break.
So that, more than the other horses, is what Justify is up against Saturday. But if the race is run like I think it is going to be run, I believe Hofburg and Vino Rosso are much more likely to be second and third than win.