TEMECULA, Calif. (June 6, 2018) – As if running against nine other horses, several of whom were brought back from the Kentucky Derby six weeks ago and are lying in freshened wait, wasn’t enough of a challenge, there’s the 1 ½-mile distance around Belmont Park’s sweeping track.
And if the 1 ½-mile, endless test of North America’s longest race for thoroughbreds isn’t enough, well, there’s always that weight. Not of Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith, who will pilot Justify in the 150th Belmont Stakes this Saturday, but the weight of history.
If Justify can conquer his nine rivals, the 1 ½-mile challenge of Belmont Park and the ever-present, often-crushing weight of history, he’ll become the 13th Triple Crown winner in American thoroughbred racing. And there is no better place in California to watch Justify chase history in the Belmont Stakes than the Pechanga OTB parlor.
Located inside the Poker Room on the second floor above Pechanga’s spacious casino, Pechanga OTB is once again offering reserved seats for $30 for the first two rows – which feature a personal television monitor at each seat — and $25 for the next two. Seats for viewing and wagering will also be available in the Round Bar on a first-come, first-served basis.
As always, Pechanga OTB brings you the value play available to guests on Belmont Saturday. For $10.95, guests can dine on their choice of Oven Roasted Brisket with a Vegetable Medley over Saffron Rice or Spicy Basil Chicken with Vegetables and Steamed Rice, along with accompaniments such as Macaroni Salad and Assorted Fruit. And as always at Pechanga OTB, there is no charge for coffee, sodas or water.
Given the fact Pechanga OTB’s first Triple Crown season promises to close in the same popular fashion it opened six weeks ago – with excited fans packing the Pechanga OTB room and both levels of the Round Bar – racing fans are once again advised to arrive early, stake out their turf and get their wagers down early to avoid being shut out.
“Justify is a story that continues to amaze not only the avid horseplayer, but racing fans across the board, and we are proud to provide a comfortable, welcoming venue for fans and players to watch him run toward a Triple Crown,” said Richie Lopez, Pechanga’s assistant director of the poker room and OTB parlor. “Thus far, our first Triple Crown season at Pechanga OTB has been an unqualified and exciting success and we are looking forward to welcoming more fans this Saturday to see if Justify can make history.”
The chestnut colt (4-5 morning line odds), who is based at Santa Anita Park and trained by Hall-of-Famer Bob Baffert, is certainly in good position. For starters, there’s his starting position: Post 1. Normally the post of death, drawing the rail at Belmont Park has been the path to the winner’s circle 23 times – more than any other position.
Second, there’s Baffert, who has been-here, done-that so many times, he makes winning a Triple Crown race look infinitely easier than it is. Baffert has won 14 Triple Crown races, including all three with American Pharoah in 2015. A win by Justify would not only give Baffert a record 15 victories in Triple Crown races, but make him only the second trainer to train two Triple Crown-winning horses.
Third, there’s Smith, who – along with the fact he’s won two Belmonts this decade – saddles up with the nickname “Big Money Mike” for a very good reason. Actually, 306 million of them – his career earnings that for the 52-year-old Smith, encompass victories in six Triple Crown races and an unprecedented 26 Breeders’ Cup races.
And finally, there’s Justify himself. Illustrating why he’s simply the best 3-year-old of his class, Justify enters Belmont Park 5-for-5 with a trail of vanquished quality opponents in his wake. His early speed makes his rivals strain to keep up and his late tactical skills with the cerebral Smith aboard allow him the luxury of flipping a switch to keep closers at bay – as witnessed by his half-length victory in a sloppy, foggy Preakness Stakes three weeks ago. There, he first put away rival Good Magic at the top of the stretch, then gamely held off closing Bravazo and Tenfold.
“We’re taking on Goliath, you know,” said Bravazo’s trainer, Hall-of-Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who is tied with Baffert for most Triple Crown victories with 14. “This is not the junior prom we’re dealing with. We’re going to have a tough chore. I don’t see any chinks in the armor. I think we had a chance to beat Justify in the Preakness. Now, he’s going to be really tough. I think it’s a lot tougher order to beat him now.”
So it’s time to fit Justify for a Triple Crown? Well, that’s where the weight of history comes in.
Since 1932, 23 horses have won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, only to be denied the third. Three didn’t start and of the 20 who did, eight finished second. Four years ago, California Chrome looked equally as unbeatable as Justify entering the Belmont starting gate. He finished fourth.
On top of that, in the last 15 years, only two Belmont favorites: American Pharoah and Afleet Alex in 2005, have found the winner’s circle. The demands of running three races over three different distances in three different states in six weeks neatly illustrates why winning a Triple Crown may be the hardest feat in sports.
So if the weight of history crushes Justify’s Triple Crown hopes, who is there to pick up the pieces? The line of potential spoilers starts with the aforementioned Bravazo (8-1), the only other horse to run all three Triple Crown races. After finishing a respectable sixth at the Kentucky Derby at 67-1, Bravazo nearly caught Justify in the Baltimore fog at the Preakness.
There’s Hofburg (the second favorite at 9-2). As the “wise guys pick” in the Kentucky Derby, he overcame a horrible start in the slop to finish right behind Bravazo in seventh. He has the closer’s speed few others in this race have, but runs into the fact the Belmont isn’t a closer’s race.
There’s Tenfold (12-1), who may have the most talent of any colt not named Justify. Like Bravazo, he was right there at the Pimlico finish line, finishing a solid third. And there’s Vino Rosso (12-1), who defines “manic-depressive” with his win in the Derby prep Wood Memorial and his ninth-place, never-a-factor finish in the Derby itself. With that, perhaps it’s time for the manic on Vino Rosso’s home track.
The big-race, wild-card-with-the-cute-name entry this time out is Gronkowski (12-1), named after and partly owned by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Trained by Chad Brown, who – like the coach of Gronkowski’s two-legged namesake, Bill Belichick — is one of the best coaches/trainers on the planet, the four-legged Gronkowski needs everything to fall into place. He’s never raced on dirt, never run more than a mile, never raced in the United States and is perhaps in a bit over his head this early in the season.
With all those storylines and with history on the clock, it’s always a good value bet to watch and wager on the biggest races of the year at Pechanga OTB.
Pechanga OTB is open Wednesday through Monday, with live simulcasts from America’s best racetracks featured on 22 flat-screens and on individual monitors at several of the 72 comfortable seats. Special events are planned for racing’s biggest days, such as Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, which means for more information on the numerous promotions, please see www.pechanga.com.