There’s a lot of championship hardware getting ready to be handed out in what’s going to be the most action-packed weekend of sports until we get baseball and football running in tandem in fall. It really got started last night in Las Vegas, when the Washington Capitals ended the hockey season by clinching the Stanley Cup. Here’s what else is at stake, listed in sequential order:
Friday Night (9 PM ET, ABC): Game 4 of Cleveland-Golden State, with the Warriors looking to close out a sweep, their third championship in four years and quite probably LeBron James’ second term in Cleveland.
Saturday Morning (9 AM ET, NBC): Have breakfast in Paris with the French Open final on the women’s side. Top-ranked Simona Halep was impressive on Thursday in demolishing Garbine Muguruza. Halep, who lost the final of the Australian Open in January, is looking to close out her first major championship. Sloane Stephens is only ranked 10th, but won the U.S. Open last year and will be a credible challenge in a bracket that saw Caroline Wozniacki beaten early and Serena Williams’ comeback bid end with an injury.
Saturday Afternoon (6:30 PM ET, NBC): Justify goes for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. This is traditionally the hardest leg of the Crown to win. It’s a longer race and the thicker sand at Belmont Park can cause some problems. But let’s say this—in his wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Justify has been the horse closing strong and pulling away. That bodes well for his chances in the mile and a half run on Saturday.
Sunday Morning (9 AM ET, NBC): Another French Open championship, this time the men’s edition. Rafael Nadal, ranked #1 in the world, takes on seventh-ranked Dominic Thiem. Nadal has owned this tournament, winning the French Open ten times since 2005, including last year. By contrast, Thiem is playing in his first final of any major tournament.
NCAA Baseball SuperRegionals (Friday through Monday): Eight separate best-of-three series will decide berths in the College World Series. The SEC is the showcase, with 6 of the 16 remaining teams. All six are facing each other. South Carolina-Arkansas and Mississippi State-Vanderbilt start tonight. And #1-ranked Florida hosts Auburn in a series that begins at noon ET on Saturday and could culminate in prime-time on Monday night on ESPN.
CHALLENGERS AT THE BELMONT
I don’t think there’s any good reason to bet against Justify on Saturday. In addition to the rationale noted above, the field is not exceptionally compelling. Justify is a solid 4-5 favorite to win. The nine horses that will take their shot at stopping his bid for history are listed below, with betting odds in parentheses…
Hofburg (9-2): I’m not certain why Hofburg is the clear second choice for the oddsmakers. He ran a nice race at the Florida Derby, finishing second, but settled for seventh at the Kentucky Derby. That’s certainly not bad, but it’s not necessarily more impressive than the records of some of the horses we’re about to see, particularly when every other challenger is going off with at least twice the betting value.
Bravazo (8-1): He’s the only horse besides Justify to run all three legs of the Triple Crown and he’s held his own thus far. A sixth-place finish at the Kentucky Derby was followed by a strong second at the Preakness. He’s trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who is after his Belmont win since 2000.
Vino Rossi (8-1): I love the jockey-trainer combo of John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher. It’s going to take greatness to upend the Mike Smith-Bob Baffert team with Justify and Johnny V and Pletcher have it in spades. Velazquez has won four Triple Crown races over the past 11 years. On the down side, Vino Rossi took ninth at the Kentucky Derby.
Gronkowski (12-1): He’s the most interesting of the challengers and not just because he’s named after the New England Patriots tight end. There’s an unknown factor that makes him a mystery and has to be unsettling to a heavy favorite. Gronkowski has only run in England in some non-marquee races. He’s won his last four, from November thru March though. There’s a boom-or-bust mindset it will take to bet on Gronk. The bad news is that the popularity of his name has made the odds lower than they might otherwise be.
Tenfold (12-1): He ran third at the Preakness and fifth in the high-profile Arkansas Derby during the prep season. It would be a huge step out of character for him to suddenly win on Saturday. Any value here would have to be a trifecta or superfecta bet.
Blended Citizen (15-1): There’s a little bit of the mystery quality that Gronkowski has, although not to the same degree. A thin resume still includes a win at the Peter Pan Stakes, a good race at Belmont Park in May. He also won a stakes race at Turfway Park in Kentucky. The problem? Blended Citizen has made one step onto a bigger stage at the Blue Grass Stakes and settled for fifth.
Noble Indy (30-1): Another Pletcher-trained horse and has an exceptional jockey in Javier Castellano. Noble Indy made some noise on the Bayou with a win in the Louisiana Derby and finishing third in the Risen Star, another race in Louisiana. But his coming-out party at the Kentucky Derby was a disastrous 17th-place finish.
Free Drop Billy (30-1): He also showed some promise in the prep season, with in-the-money finishes at stakes races in Florida, New York and Kentucky. But, like Noble Indy, the step onto the Triple Crown stage went awry. Free Drop Billy finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby. If nothing else, he’s got pedigree—his daddy, Union Rags, won the Belmont Stakes in 2012.
Restoring Hope (30-1): The other Baffert-trained horse in addition to Justify, Restoring Hope appears to pose little threat. He did run a solid third at the Wood Memorial here on the New York circuit earlier this year. But at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, he ran one of the undercard stakes races…and finished 12th.
Who do you like? My 1-2-3 selections would be Justify, Vino Rossi and Gronkowski. The actual betting strategy would be an exotic box with all three horses and then a $2 saver bet on Noble Indy, who I like the most among the longshots.
There’s so much going on this weekend, there’s not even time to talk baseball! We didn’t have that problem on the blog this week though, with closer looks at contending teams out West, from the Seattle Mariners to the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Colorado Rockies.
Continuing the western theme, we looked at the rebuilding and possible playoff hopes for the Oakland A’s. And we got a little philosophical, in exploring the differences between the NHL and NBA postseasons that run side-by-side at this time of year.
Everybody enjoy the weekend smorgasbord of sports and we’ll be back next week to sort it all out, starting with the historic impact of the Washington Capitals’ long-awaited championship.