October 17, 2018

Audible decision pending: why WinStar might opt to let him try Justify in Belmont

Audible could be viewed as an insurance policy if Justify doesn't bring his best to the Belmont (c) Adam Coglianese Photography

***Second Update: ESPN’s Darren Rovell broke news late Thursday afternoon that Coolmore has secured the breeding rights to Justify. A subsequent statement from WinStar Farm, however, emphasized that no such deal has been finalized:

“We have had numerous inquiries into the breeding rights of Justify, including from Coolmore. Nothing is finalized at this time and won’t be in the foreseeable future. We are focused on the Belmont Stakes (G1) and his racing career at this time.”

So as of latest report, the following analysis remains germane to the discussion of whether to run Audible too.***

As unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) hero Justify aims for a Triple Crown sweep, an attending storyline revolves around key rival Audible – namely, whether their common ownership interests will let them square off in the June 9 Belmont (G1). Both race for a partnership composed of China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm, which may prefer to remove Audible from the Belmont field, and accordingly out of Justify’s way.

Needless to say, Audible should run in the Belmont for a host of reasons relating to sportsmanship and good of the game, to give fans the best spectacle, and both horses the opportunity they deserve. If Justify earns his crown by beating all comers, especially his most significant foes, it would be a more meaningful accomplishment. If Justify prevails in a Belmont that Audible skipped purely to due to an ownership decision, there would always be the nagging “what if.”

But WinStar is in the stallion-making business, so the commercial factor weighs heavily in the partners’ analysis. If Justify is worth X as an unbeaten Triple Crown winner, why not do everything you can to make his path easier? Why run Audible at the risk of scoring an “own goal,” so to speak, if he upsets Justify and spoils the party?

I’d argue that the commercial angle isn’t as straightforward as that. Although I’ll defer to those much better versed in stallion valuations, a case can be made that WinStar (read: and partners) is eligible to come out ahead by running Audible in any event.

First, WinStar has already hit the jackpot with Justify. Here’s a fantastically talented horse who not only bucked 136 years of history to win the Derby after going unraced at two, and made more history by adding the Preakness, but he’s got massive commercial appeal. Justify is a stallion marketer’s dream as a son of the late Coolmore sensation Scat Daddy. Every stud farm on the planet would love to have a Scat Daddy stallion on the roster, and WinStar can boast an exceptional one.

If Justify had an unfashionable pedigree, and needed a Triple Crown win to make him halfway more attractive to domestic breeders, the calculus may well be different. But he’s not going to lose stud appeal. Rather, the question is how much more valuable would he be as a Triple Crown winner compared to his value as a dual classic winner. It would be more, but if you’re already starting out in the ultra-elite bracket, what would it be percentage-wise?

On the other hand, Audible has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to increase his value substantially in the Belmont. As a Florida Derby (G1)-winning son of hot young sire Into Mischief, he’s already got cache as a stallion prospect. But Audible can differentiate himself from Into Mischief’s other sons at stud – Goldencents, Can the Man, and Practical Joke – who all had distance limitations.

Audible can claim to have eclipsed them (in that department) with his third-place effort in the Kentucky Derby. But a classic win would put him in a higher league and enhance his stallion portfolio. Indeed, precisely because of his profile and the fact he represents a speed-oriented sire line, Audible would be a commercially appealing Belmont winner – not one in danger of marginalization as a “plodder.” The counterpoint is that Audible could achieve a similar objective if he wins the Travers (G1), but when you have a horse in good form, you strike while the iron’s hot, not tempt fate by waiting and hoping for no setbacks down the road. No one knows who’ll still be healthy come Travers time.

Another factor may be whether connections believe Justify really is the superior of the two on merit. If so, and if the Belmont is Justify’s race to lose, then Audible might as well take his chance to pad his resume with another classic placing. What else would he do between now and later in the summer, when something like the Haskell (G1) could be made to order for him?

WinStar President/CEO Elliott Walden used that very phrase, Justify’s “race to lose,” when speaking to NYRA publicity Thursday.

“I’m going up to watch (Audible) work, then we’ll sit down with (trainer) Todd (Pletcher) and probably have a decision next week. I think he’d be big competition. But I think it’s Justify’s race to lose.”

At the same time, Audible can be viewed as an insurance policy for Justify. If the heavy favorite regresses, the Belmont is wide open. Wouldn’t WinStar want to hedge, and try to prevent any other entity from capitalizing on an off-form Justify? Why not take the proverbial lemon and make lemonade?

For whatever it’s worth, the “insurance” angle is my pet theory for why WinStar and partners may ultimately opt to run Audible as well as Justify. There’s a possibility of a heartbreaker scenario if Justify finishes a tough-beat second at the hands of Audible. But my hunch is that’s not the likeliest result. If Justify’s at his best, I think he wins outright. If he’s vulnerable, Audible is a top threat to take advantage, but he’s not the only one.

To me, the worst outcome commercially for WinStar would be for Justify to lose, with Audible kept under wraps in the barn. Then they’d simultaneously miss the Triple Crown and whiff on Audible’s chance of saving the day.

I also think that WinStar and partners recognize the implications of the decision upon Justify’s reputation. Unless Audible has a plausible excuse to pass on the Belmont, a physical reason, then his absence would be read as a lack of confidence in Justify. Historical stature is a far longer-term game, of course, but you’d hope it would be a consideration.

Walden admitted this is a tougher call than pitching in Quip against Justify in the Preakness, a much discussed decision that proved anticlimactic when Quip wound up last. Yet Walden’s words could be viewed as an inclination to let Audible line up, and let the chips fall where they may:

“It’s different when you’ve won two out of the three rather than one out of the three. But at the same time, I do feel like you cannot manufacture a Triple Crown; that it’s either going to happen or it’s not. So, we’ll see.”

If both Justify and Audible run, WinStar and partners are positioned to benefit one way or another – with an unbeaten Triple Crown winner by Scat Daddy, or the most well-rounded stallion prospect by Into Mischief.

1 Comment on Audible decision pending: why WinStar might opt to let him try Justify in Belmont

  1. Audible winning the Belmont instead of Justify really wouldn’t spoil the party: WinStar would make history crown as the first-ever winner of an Owner Triple Crown-now it’s really a great hedge! Remember 1995 when trainer D. Wayne Lukas won a Trainer Triple Crown with two horses? These have been my new ways for years of thinking about the whole Triple Crown concept.

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