On Saturday, Justify became the 13th horse in history to win the Triple Crown (and the second in the last four years, which explains the general lack of excitement—these Belmont Stakes drew the lowest ratings for a Triple Crown bid since NBC began broadcasting the race in 2001). Justify is obviously a great horse—but he might’ve had some help.
Justify is accused of getting assistance from his stablemate Restoring Hope, also trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by jockey Florent Geroux. Geroux unexpectedly brought his horse up early and took the first turn notably wide, before coming back inside to the rail on the back stretch, and in doing so blocked a couple of fast-starting contenders from getting anywhere near Justify.
Mike Repole, co-owner of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, laid the charges against Geroux and Restoring Hope in an interview with the Post.
“It definitely seemed to me he was more of an offensive lineman than a racehorse trying to win the Belmont,” said Repole of 37-1 Restoring Hope, “and Justify was a running back trying to run for a touchdown.”
Here’s the race. The horses to keep your eye on are Justify, starting from the rail, and Restoring Hope, in Gate 5. Geroux is in hot pink silks, so he’s easy to spot.
Restoring Hope finished eighth, well off the lead, fading sharply soon after making sure Justify had no challengers heading into the far turn. It was certainly an odd race for a jockey trying to win—Restoring Hope started badly and spent everything he had to catch up to Justify in the clubhouse turn, and had nothing left very quickly.
John Velazquez, the rider of Vino Rosso, said he felt Geroux rode Restoring Hope in a manner to protect Justify.
“Why would you send a horse that breaks bad and take everybody out, then come back in?” Velazquez, a Hall of Fame rider, said. “That’s his job, to protect the other horse and it worked for them. You have to give it to them.”
“We watched him rush up like he was a Quarter Horse, make a quick right-hand turn, then turn left, pinned [Bravazo] on the rail,” an angry Repole told the Daily Racing Form. “He looked like a bodyguard making sure nobody got close to Justify.”
There are a few things to keep in mind here. First, Repole isn’t exactly an unbiased observer; Vino Rosso finished fourth and Noble Indy last. Noble Indy, a speed horse, needed to be near the front early to have any shot, and couldn’t get past Restoring Hope. Second, it’s impossible to know what was in the minds of Baffert or Geroux. Geroux on Sunday said Restoring Hope was getting aggressive with him, and he pulled the horse out wide in the turn to make sure he wasn’t penned in. It’s a plausible-enough explanation.
Gary West, owner of Restoring Hope, was furious with the way his horse was run, but admitted he can never know Geroux’s intent.
“I have no earthly idea what Florent was thinking or what his race strategy was,” he said in an email response to a request for an interview. “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.”
The third and ultimately most important factor here is that it’s not necessarily even against the rules to block for another horse. On a replay of the race, NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss observed that Restoring Hope “is sort of running interference a little bit to keep Noble Indy from getting up there with Justify. But that’s fine, it’s perfectly legal.”
Steve Lewandowski, the New York Gaming Commission steward, said there are no plans to talk to Geroux or investigate further. So this one’s in the books, and it’s history. Those on the wrong side of it aren’t about to forget it, however.
“Justify’s a freak, super horse, undefeated, amazing what he’s done,” Repole said. “Who knows if he would have won the race anyway? We’ll never know.”