The outcome of the Triple Crown could come down to a business decision, not a sporting competition.
The Belmont Stakes will be contested June 9 in New York, and the path to racing immortality was cleared significantly for Justify Friday. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will not have to face what looked like his prime competition, Audible, in the third leg of the Triple Crown. That colt, winner of the Florida Derby and third-place finisher in Kentucky May 5, has been benched for the Belmont.
Audible is owned by WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club, which also happens to be the majority ownership of Justify. Instead of pitting the two horses against each other and letting the better one win, it was announced Friday that Audible will skip the Belmont and rest up for a slate of races later this summer.
“I don’t feel like he’s doing quite as well as he was leading into the [Kentucky] Derby,” trainer Todd Pletcher told the DRF Friday morning. “We’ve had a couple of weeks here where his training has been on sloppy tracks; now that we’ve had some good weather and some good surfaces I don’t feel like he’s where he needs to be to feel like he’s going to win the Belmont.”
WinStar CEO Elliott Walden, who was at Belmont Friday, said the decision not to run Audible has nothing to do with the ownership conflict of interest.
“It was Todd’s decision,” Walden told the DRF.
Indeed, Pletcher is pointing another WinStar horse, speedball Noble Indy, toward a potential Belmont entry. That would seemingly refute the notion of the ownership group clearing a path for Justify – but Noble Indy, a 17th-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, seems an unlikely threat pull a colossal upset. Noble Indy’s only potential impact on the race would be juicing the pace to enhance the chances of yet another Pletcher colt, closer Vino Rosso.
If Audible is healthy, holding him out for freshening purposes seems a dubious premise. Audible has run all of three races since Dec. 6, 2017, which means he needs freshening about as much as LaVar Ball needs more attention. A Belmont race five weeks after the Kentucky Derby would fit the normal Pletcher timetable.
A no-Audible Belmont is a letdown for fans who want to see the most competitive race possible with so much on the line. It gives rise to suspicion that a Justify Triple Crown would be as much the product of backroom dealing as racing excellence. It could leave the whole thing feeling a bit hollow if Justify wallops a weak field June 9.
It’s been a hot topic since Justify won the Preakness, and the sentiment among many in the sport was that WinStar should let its two best 3-year-olds square off.
“He should run,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Audible Thursday morning at Churchill Downs. “He deserves to run. He’s a good horse. You don’t miss a race of that magnitude with a horse who’s good enough to be there.”
But really, what would you do if you were WinStar?
Would you bet against yourself and your biggest moment in the sport? Would you make your best horse’s job more difficult, or less? And would you jeopardize a minimum of $15 million in extra revenue that a Belmont loss would cost?
Multiple media outlets reported Thursday that Justify’s breeding rights will be sold for $60 million to Coolmore Stud, the Irish thoroughbred conglomerate with a major breeding operation in Kentucky. Sources familiar with the deal told Yahoo Sports this week that there also will be a $15 million bonus payment from Coolmore if Justify wins the Triple Crown. (The New York Times reported the bonus to be “about $25 million,” but sources disputed that number Friday.)
With that much money on the line, plus the chance to join racing history as just the 13th Triple Crown winner, wouldn’t you do everything within your control to make this easier for your horse? I think most of us would.
Whether or not Audible runs is within WinStar’s control. Having him skip the Belmont is a logical business move, even if it is antithetical to the ideal of taking on all comers and beating the best to be the best.
Unfortunately, these are the kind of conundrums that tend to attach themselves to horse racing. The sport is a magnet for controversy and self-defeating problems.
Jerry Jones can’t own multiple NFL franchises, so he never has to compete against himself. Neither can owners in other major professional American sports. But in horse racing, where the wealth is being consolidated in the hands of fewer big-time owners and trainers, conflicts of interest are a risk. That’s especially true as ownership groups disperse their horses among multiple trainers, as WinStar has — Justify is trained by Bob Baffert, Pletcher’s West Coast rival.
Those exist in other sports. The Indianapolis 500 will be run Sunday, and owners will have multiple drivers and cars in that race. Generally speaking the philosophy there is, “may the best driver win.”
“May the best horse win” is the standard operating procedure in four-legged racing. Owners want to give themselves the most options to win the big prizes, and will occasionally compete against themselves. It’s why WinStar entered three horses in the Kentucky Derby.
But the Triple Crown is something entirely different. The stakes rise and the field of legitimate competition shrinks. It would be a risk to bet against yourself – an avoidable risk, in this instance.
Maybe the decision not to run Audible against Justify is based on nothing more than whether the horse is physically up to the challenge. But even if Audible were good and ready, it makes business sense to keep him out of Justify’s 1½-mile path to immortality. Don’t beat yourself.
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