The morning after Kentucky Derby (G1) star Justify preserved his unbeaten record in the Preakness S. (G1), by the smallest margin of his career so far – a half-length – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s confidence was undimmed in his Triple Crown potential.
“I think the Belmont (G1) will be easier on him, the way it’s set up,” said Baffert, who suffered three heartbreaks with Triple Crown seekers until American Pharoah broke through in 2015. While his Derby/Preakness heroes Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) were denied late in the Belmont, War Emblem’s prospects were virtually over at the break in 2002.
But so high is Baffert’s opinion of Justify that he’s not worried about whatever the “Test of the Champion” throws at him.
“I think it’s a little bit different. Before we’d go there thinking it’s going to be so difficult. Something always goes wrong. I just feel with this horse, he’s so talented, something can go wrong and he’d still win.
“He’s a superior horse. Yesterday, they tried something different and he handled it. He’s not one-dimensional.
“He did something totally different yesterday. He got challenged early. Good Magic was pushing him out the whole way,” Baffert observed. “He had a five-eighths run, so that’s probably why he didn’t have a lot of kick at the end.
“But (jockey) Mike (Smith) said he could have won by more. When he knew he had it he just coasted to the wire. When he was pulling up and the horses came to him, he takes off again. It was close, but for him, what he’s done – fifth race – it’s pretty incredible.”
Smith expounded on his trip on a Los Angeles radio show, with the salient quotes appearing in the Santa Anita barn notes.
“If I’d have kept my foot on the gas, he’d have won by farther,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “But I had Good Magic beat and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come flying the way Lukas’s horse (Bravazo) did…I peeked under my shoulder, didn’t see anybody and I wanted to get him home safe and sound and not get after him and make him do any more than he had to do there at the end.
“But I’ll tell you what, when (my horse) hit the wire, boy, he locked on Bravazo and he wanted to gallop out…He actually galloped out really well, so I’m confident that he’s fine and he’ll go on and he’ll be ready for the Belmont.”
Although Justify encountered sloppy conditions at Pimlico similar to those in the Derby, the imposing chestnut did not show any signs of the left hind heel bruise he exhibited the Sunday after Derby. Indeed, Baffert reported that his prize pupil was in good order in every respect.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t go to the Belmont as long as he stays like this,” Baffert said. “He looks good. He looks pretty bright. He ate everything. No foot issues today.”
Baffert also commented on Justify’s Preakness giving him a record-tying 14th career victory in a Triple Crown race, putting him alongside fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Ironically, the Lukas-trained Bravazo was the one who got closest to Justify at the wire, and came up a half-length shy of extending Lukas’ grip on the record book.
“I remember when I first got in, I remember Wayne Lukas’s record. He had like 12. ‘Well, no one is ever going to touch that, it’s ridiculous.’ I’ve never given it any thought, it’s never been a goal of mine,” Baffert said.
“I did have a goal to win the Triple Crown. It felt a little empty. When somebody (else) would go for the Triple Crown, I had to see all my losses repeated over and over and over. When American Pharoah won, the first call I got was from (longtime owner) Mike Pegram. He said, ‘I’m glad you won, because I don’t want to see any more reruns of Real Quiet getting beat.’”
Now that Justify is in a position to emulate American Pharoah, Baffert is prepared for the media frenzy going into the Belmont.
“New York is a sports town. They love something like (the Triple Crown). It would be just as important (as American Pharoah). They’re watching the horse, they see this beautiful horse.
“I think this horse has a big audience. Usain Bolt? He was in all those Olympics. But we still watched, to see if he still has it. Can he do it? He’s undefeated, he knows where the wire is, he knows himself he’s pretty good. I think it would be just as exciting.”
Justify did not stick around in Baltimore for long, departing just after 8 a.m. (EDT) to return to Churchill Downs. He was back at the Louisville track by 2:15 p.m., accompanied by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes.
“It was a very smooth trip back to Kentucky,” Barnes said. “We had a great trip to Pimlico. We brought two horses and they both won.”
The other was fellow three-year-old Ax Man, who romped in the Sir Barton one race prior to the Preakness.
“The only thing that wasn’t so great was the weather. It rained every day we were there – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and obviously Saturday.
“We knew Justify liked the off track in the Derby but Pimlico’s track was different than Churchill,” Barnes continued. “It was more of a harder surface underneath the water. We couldn’t see anything that happened in the race besides the start and finish because of the fog.
“We’re obviously very proud of his effort. I would have liked to see the backstretch run a little better. Mike (Smith) said he was battling the entire time with horses and getting pressured the whole way.”
Justify will get three or four days off, just walking the shedrow at Barn 33. Then the Scat Daddy colt will ease back into light training, as Baffert explained.
“We’ll just get him back and usually go easy on him for the first week,” the Hall of Famer said. “Depending on how he responds, we’ll start doing something with him. It’s day by day with how we do things.”
On Wednesday, Churchill will begin a special training session for Belmont Stakes contenders from 7:30 a.m. to 7:40 a.m. The respective second and third from the Preakness, Bravazo and Tenfold, are likewise based at Churchill, and expected to point for a rematch in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Also likely to take advantage of the training window is Free Drop Billy.
In addition to the Churchill-based quartet, other Belmont candidates include Audible, Hofburg, Vino Rosso, and Blended Citizen. Among the possibles are Justify’s stablemate Solomini, My Boy Jack, and European Road to the Kentucky Derby winner Gronkowski, a new recruit for Chad Brown.