Back on the scene at Churchill Downs Monday morning to check on Justify, trainer Bob Baffert was pleased with his Triple Crown hopeful. The unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) winner turned in another routine 1 1/2-mile gallop ahead of his date with destiny in the June 9 Belmont (G1).
“I hadn’t seen him in a week, so I liked his flesh,” Baffert said. “He’s moving really well, hitting the ground really well. You can tell the rider (Humberto Gomez) has his hands full. It’s day by day with these horses. I hope every day is like that, because it can change. But right now, I feel real good about him.
“It’s been really a fun journey for a horse that basically was a walk-on in January and to take us this far.
“It’s nice to get the Preakness out of the way,” the Hall of Famer continued. “We knew that was probably going to be a tough race for him, coming back like that real quick and dealing with a little foot issue.
“I think to win the Triple Crown you have to be a big, strong horse and be able to handle a lot of different situations. This horse is just that. He eats everything in front of him and doesn’t lose any weight. That’s a big thing for a horse to be able to win the Belmont. War Emblem lost weight after the Preakness and that didn’t bode well in the Belmont. Justify looks really happy for a horse that’s done a lot in just a few months. It just shows the quality he has.
“We could put a little breeze in him (Tuesday); I’m really not sure yet,” Baffert added. “We’ll just play things day to day.
“We learned a lot from Pharoah. Good horses teach you a lot and we keep that experience with us. I feel pretty good about (Justify).
“The biggest pressure is making sure we don’t disappoint the fans. I’m more worried about that than winning the Triple Crown. We walked into Belmont with Pharoah and I told (son) Bode that we may get some hecklers. He was disappointed when we didn’t have any but we may with this horse since he’s been late to the party.
“I’m just happy for a horse who has done a lot in just a few months and still looks healthy, like he hasn’t run that many times. That just shows you the quality he has. I keep using the same word superior, but Pharoah was the same way. He just kept getting better as we went on. Those great horses, they do that….
“We’re still training,” Baffert said of the regimen to get Justify ready for the third jewel of the Triple Crown. “We don’t train scared. He has to go a mile and a half, and I want to make sure when I throw Mike Smith on his back that he has a full tank of gas and his horse is ready. Because if he’s not ready, it doesn’t matter what Mike does. It’s up to us to give him his best chance.
“I really think he’ll like those big, sweeping turns (at Belmont Park) better. He’s a big horse. It’s one of those things you can’t worry about. He has to show up. My job is that he shows up. If he’s good enough, he’ll get it done. That’s what the Triple Crown is all about, to see what you’re made of.”
Baffert credited his whole team, singling out longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes who’s been supervising Justify at Churchill while the trainer holds down the fort at Santa Anita.
“Justify is a great horse but I have a great team,” Baffert said. “Jimmy and everyone who works with us does a great job. We get put in situations like this all year long. I’m at the stage of my life now that I’m ready for these type of situations. If I had these horses 25 years ago I probably wouldn’t be ready and would second guess myself. It’s just like a coach – have a game plan but tweak it if need be. Everyone on the team knows their role.”
Baffert’s other Belmont contender, Wood Memorial (G2) third Restoring Hope, is expected to breeze Tuesday.
The lone Belmont candidate to work Monday was Free Drop Billy, who negotiated five-eighths in :59.60 during Churchill’s special 7:30-7:40 a.m. (EDT) training window. Trainer Dale Romans has yet to confirm him for the Belmont, but this exercise has moved him into the likelier category.
Under regular exercise rider Juan Segundo, the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) winner posted splits of :12.60, :23.80, :35.60 and :47. Churchill Downs’ clocker John Nichols then caught him galloping out six furlongs in 1:12, seven furlongs in 1:25.20 and rounding off one mile in 1:39.80.
“Right now we’re leaning towards running,” Romans said.
“I was looking for him to have good energy, look good doing it and act like he was happy with what he did when he came back. We saw all those things. Now I’ve just got to speak to the powers above me (Dennis Albaugh and his son-in-law Jason Loutsch of Albaugh Family Stable) and see what they want to do.
“If it’s left up to me right now, I would say we go. In a big move like this, I want them to be comfortable with it too. So I’m not going to push it. I’m going to let them tell me what they want. But I don’t see any reason not to go. I think he’ll get the distance, it’s a $1.5 million classic – you don’t get those but three times a year. Let’s take a shot.”
Loutsch told NYRA by phone that a decision would be made Monday night at a family barbecue.
“We wanted to get past this last big work and see how his energy level was,” he said. “Obviously, we were really disappointed in his effort in the Kentucky Derby. We’re going to try to erase that, hopefully it was the slop and he didn’t like the track. But it seems like he had a good work this morning, lots of energy, galloped out strong.
“Justify looks unbeatable the way he’s been training this week, but I’ll give Dennis the pros and cons and let him say yes or no. This is what we’re in the business for, a big race like this. We know it’s a tall task, but if we can get a piece of it that would be a huge deal. It’s going to be a big day of racing, and this is what we’re in the game for… Anything can happen. Dale has brought in longer shots before. That’s why you go in the gate and hope someday we’re going to break through.”
Romans commented on the pedigree angle in Free Drop Billy’s favor. By Union Rags and out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Trensa, he is a half-brother to Godolphin’s multiple Group 1 hero Hawkbill, last seen landing the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night.
“(Hawkbill) won at 1 ½ miles, so I think Free Drop Billy could run all day,” the trainer said. “Horses in the Belmont will probably only run 1 1/2 miles this one time so it’s unique for everyone involved. Free Drop Billy certainly has the pedigree to run that distance.”
Bravazo may breeze Wednesday or Thursday, according to trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“I’m going to check the weather for the next few days,” the Hall of Famer said. “It could be Wednesday or Thursday. I’ll play it by ear.
“He was full of himself. He bucked and squealed when he was going by the grandstand. He jumped straight in the air and squealed, felt pretty good. I was going to go a mile but he didn’t want to pull up. He’s not easy to pull up. His energy is good, everything’s good.
“The secret to training racehorses is to be able to read the horse, figure out what he needs or doesn’t need. I’m just going day to day, reading him, looking at his energy level, the way he’s traveling. He just did it with a lot of gusto. He was into it this morning. He’s absolutely flourished this spring.”
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is likewise delighted with the progressive Tenfold.
“I think we’re just touching the surface of his talent, who he’s going to be,” Asmussen said. “He is developing more personality with the added pressure, and in a very good way, just a confident sense of direction, getting stronger, eats a little more aggressively. I think he’s going to be a very exciting horse down the road, as well as 12 days from now.
“This is a horse who has raced four times. Every time you lay your eyes on him, he’s a little stronger. I love the direction it’s going.”
“Ideally, Friday is the day we want to get (the work) in,” Pletcher said. “If the main track is fast, we will go on there.”
Watch the Churchill training session show below, and you can scout out the free Belmont PPs here.