The owners of other entries in the Belmont Stakes have called for an investigation into the race, claiming that Justify trainer Bob Baffert may have used another horse in his stable to run interference for the Triple Crown winner.
Restoring Hope, with jockey Florent Geroux up, appeared to run interference for the champion on Saturday while traveling second and forcing would-be challengers to go extremely wide.
‘He looked like a bodyguard making sure nobody got close to Justify,’ Mike Repole, co-owner of Vino Rosso, who finished fourth, and Noble Indy, who finished last, told Daily Racing Form of Restoring Hope, who ended up finishing eighth.
From the first turn through the back stretch, Restoring Hope hung right off Justify, pinning Bravazo to the rail, whose late charge in the shorter Preakness Stakes nearly overtook Justify in that race.
Bob Baffert (center) trained both Justify and Restoring Hope. Now some owners have accused him of using Restoring Hope to run interference at the Belmont Stakes for Justify
Jockey Florent Geroux (center in pink silks) is seen leaving the gate at the Belmont Stakes, with winner Justify on the far left. Geroux is denying that he colluded to help Justify win
Baffert, who trained both Restoring Hope and Justified, and Geroux both denied the allegation of collusion, saying that Restoring Hope simply couldn’t be restrained.
‘Bob just wanted me to get good position, he wanted the horse to be forwardly placed, second or third, you don’t see too many closers from Baffert,’ Geroux told the racing magazine.
‘If my horse would have broke on top, I would have been on the lead and Justify laying second. My horse broke a step slow and Justify was already in front of me.’
Baffert seemed to acknowledge that the plan for Restoring Hope was to lay in second for the first turn, but not as part of a plan to help Justify.
‘The plan was to sit off Justify,’ the trainer said. ‘He got really rank with him. He had to get away from him so they wouldn’t go so fast.’
‘Rank’ means that the horse ignored the jockey’s attempts to rein in his speed.
Restoring Hope (center in pink) is seen pinning Bravazo (left) to the rail around the first turn, as Justify (right) maintains the lead in Saturday’s race
Restoring Hope (in pink) still hangs off Justify (in red) at the end of the backstretch with Bravazo pinned inside and other challengers forced to run extremely wide
Critics aren’t buying the trainer’s defense, though.
‘It baffled me,’ Repole said. ‘I would have thought Baffert would have wanted Restoring Hope nowhere close to the pace.’
Gary West, who owns Restoring Hope, also spoke out in fury about how his horse was handled in the race.
‘I have no earthly idea what Florent was thinking or what his race strategy was,’ he said in an email to the New York Post.
‘Had I known better, the first eighth of a mile I would have thought it was a quarter-horse race, not the mile-and-a-half Belmont. Maybe the horse was completely out of control and Florent had no choice. I will never know.’
Repole did say that his suspicions don’t diminish his respect for the mighty Justify, just the 13th horse in history to win the Triple Crown.
‘Justify’s a freak, super horse, undefeated, amazing what he’s done,’ Repole told DFR.
‘Who knows if he would have won the race anyway? We’ll never know. At the end of the day Bob had a game plan for his two jockeys, we had a game plan for our two jockeys.’
By the end of the race (above) normally late-charging Bravazo has fallen into sixth position and Restoring Hope (not shown) finished in eighth position
Baffert (far right) is seen after the race with jockey Mike Smith and the owners
But the owner says he hopes the New York racing stewards talk to Geroux about his ride.
Steve Lewandowski, the New York Gaming Commission steward, said Sunday that there is no plan to talk to Geroux.
‘Nothing was brought to our attention,’ Lewandowski said.
Though the possibility is exceedingly remote, Justify’s historic Triple Crown could in theory be vacated if stewards found that Restoring Hope broke racing rules in a way that prevented another horse beating Justify.
According to New York state gaming commission regulations: ‘If any horses trained by the same trainer race uncoupled in any race, and one or more of them shall be disqualified for violation of the rules of racing, any other horses entered by that same trainer shall also be disqualified if in the judgment of the stewards such violation prevented any other horse or horses from finishing ahead of the other part of the entry.
‘If said violation is without such effect upon the finish of the race, penalty therefore may be applied against the offender only.’