New York — There are horses for courses and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott thinks he has one ready to upset Justify’s bid for a Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.
The colt is Hofburg, a 9-2 second choice in $1.5 million race Saturday. Justify will look to become thoroughbred racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years. American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in 2015.
Mott is the first to admit beating the undefeated and heavily favored Justify won’t be easy. Trainer Bob Baffert’s colt was impressive in winning the muddy Kentucky Derby more than a month ago, and the son of Scat Daddy showed a lot of heart in fending off Bravazo and Tenfold at the foggy Preakness roughly three weeks ago.
“Our horse has been getting some attention. They made him second choice in the morning line,” Mott said of Hofburg. “From the rumblings I have been hearing, it seems there are a few people talking about him and handicappers seem to like him.”
Hofburg finished seventh in the Derby after encountering traffic problems and skipped the Preakness. The lightly raced 3-year-old colt, ridden by Irad Ortiz, has one win in four lifetime starts. A second in the Florida Derby this year was his best career start.
So why the hoopla?
Hofburg has the genes for the 1½ mile race around the Belmont Park surface. He is the son of Tapit, who has sired three of the last four Belmont winners — Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit last year. When American Pharoah won in 2015, the second-place finisher was Frosted, another son of Tapit.
“You have to have a horse that really wants to do that, and is capable of doing that,” Mott said of the distance, the longest of the Triple Crown races. “That’s one of the main ingredients right there. Some of those horses are just made a little different. They move a little different and have the lung capacity, and they have the whole package to do it.”
Mott said horses can be trained to run longer distances, but you would rather have one bred to do it rather than transforming a miler into a distance runner.
There’s more to Hofburg’s hereditary than Tapit. The colt’s dam was Soothing Touch, a daughter of Touch Gold.
Touch Gold won the Belmont in 1997 by three-quarters of a length, denying Silver Charm a Triple Crown. By the way, Baffert also trained Silver Charm.
If Hofburg is going to win, Mott said the late-running colt has to be within 2-to-3 lengths of the lead for the final quarter mile. It also would help if some of the others in the field of 10 forced Justify to run an honest early pace.
Good Magic did that in the Preakness and Mike Smith, the jockey of Justify, felt Bravazo and Tenfold closing at the wire.
Hofburg finished his final workouts at Saratoga last week and shipped to Belmont. He will gallop Thursday and Friday.
“I love horses and I love the people,” said the 64-year-old Mott, who won the Belmont with Drosselmeyer in 2010. “I enjoy the people I come to work with. We work with the horses. I really enjoy seeing young horses develop and working with the horses and different issues they might have, quirks or physical problems.”
The soft-spoken Mott says he would almost prefer to train the horses and send them over to the paddock to race while he stays back at the barn. He will go to the paddock Saturday for the Belmont, and then take the trip to the winner’s circle if Hofburg does his thing.
Post time: 6:37 p.m. Saturday, Belmont Stakes, Elmont, N.Y.
Distance: 1.5 miles
TV: NBC (broadcast begins at 4 p.m.)
Field: Ten horses, including Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify, which is attempting to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.