Belmont Stakes

Baffert Checks on Triple Crown Hopeful Justify at Churchill Downs

Coady Photography

ELMONT, N.Y. – Bob Baffert popped into Louisville from his California base to check on his latest Triple Crown hopeful Monday. The Hall of Fame trainer was delighted with what he saw in Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify, who on June 9 in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes will try to become only the 13th horse to sweep the three classics.

Justify, now 5-for-5 after making his first start February 18, is only the second horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old and is the only unraced juvenile to win the Derby and Preakness. The son of the deceased stallion Scat Daddy races for the partnership of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners.

“It’s been really a fun journey for a horse that basically was a walk-on in January and to take us this far,” Baffert said Monday morning after watching Justify and fellow Belmont Stakes candidate Restoring Hope gallop at Churchill Downs under exercise rider Humberto Gomez. “It’s nice to get the Preakness out of the way. 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. But right now it seems like it’s going smoothly. Flesh-wise he looks great, so I’m very happy with the way he’s going. … The thing he has going for him is that he’s a big strong horse, he can handle a lot. He eats everything you put in front of him. That’s the main key, that they don’t lose weight. I remember War Emblem. The heat got him, he was losing weight.

“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 [Baffert’s 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah] was the same way. He just kept getting better as we went on. Those great horses, they do that…. I hadn’t seen him in a week, so I liked his flesh. He’s moving really well, hitting the ground really well. You can tell the rider 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.”

Baffert said Justify could have “a little breeze” Tuesday morning, adding, “I want to play it by ear. I’ll see how the track looks.” Meanwhile, Restoring Hope, who hasn’t raced since finishing 12th in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile on the Derby card, is scheduled to work Tuesday.

“We’re still training,” Baffert said of preparing Justify for the 1 1/2-mile Triple Crown finale. “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.”

It will be the fifth time Baffert has come into New York with the Triple Crown on the line, winning three years ago with American Pharoah after Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) finished second and War Emblem (2002) wound up eased.

“One out of four’s not too bad,” he said.

Of the sequence that has seen Baffert win the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern, the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2015 with American Pharoah, 2016 Classic with Arrogate on route to becoming the world’s richest horse and now Justify, Baffert said: “The hits keep coming. We just pinch ourselves that is this really truly happening.

“I think I’m at a stage of my life where I was ready for this,” he said. “If it was 25 years ago when I first got in, I probably would be second-guessing myself. Now we sit down and have a game plan. I tweak it a little bit, but everybody knows their role. Humberto is a really top rider on him, and he’ll tell me this or that. It makes my life easier. So we’re just enjoying the ride.

“We know there are a lot of people who are going to be counting on him, and we don’t want to disappoint the fans. That’s one thing about the Triple Crown. You’re more worried about the fans. You want that horse to show up. Everybody has paid their money, taking their kids. They’re having a good time. They are there to see one horse. That’s the beauty of the Triple Crown.”

“I really think he’ll like those big, sweeping turns better,” Baffert said. “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.”

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