It was only three years ago when La Cañada Flintridge trainer Bob Baffert helped break a 37-year drought with his famed 3-year-old colt American Pharoah.
In 2015, Baffert, jockey Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah captured the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to win thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Fast forward only three years and Baffert is at it again, this time with a less-seasoned, but maybe an equally talented colt in Justify.
The horse has already captured the Derby and Preakness and is looking for more history at Saturday’s 150th annual Belmont Stakes in Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y. The estimated start time is 3:37 p.m. (PDT) and the race will be broadcast on NBC and live-streamed at NBCSports.com.
Baffert was asked at a press conference at Santa Anita if his horse was ready after two grueling races.
“He really recovered quickly after [the Preakness],” Baffert said on May 24. “I really like him after this race and after the Derby. At the Derby, he went really fast early and finished up there. You know he’s a horse, a big strong horse.”
Justify enters as a big favorite with 4-5 odds as it attempts to become the 13th Triple Crown champion. Hofburg appears to be the biggest threat with odds at 4-1, while Bravazo, who Justify held off at the Preakness, is listed at 7-1.
A Baffert victory would put him in rarefied air as he would join James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers with two Triple Crowns. Fitzsimmons won with Gallant Fox and Omaha in 1930 and 1935, respectively.
Jockey Mike E. Smith, who was never won a Triple Crown, will look to continue his magic with Justify as the duo is 4-0 this season. Justify won his maiden race on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita with jockey Drayden Van Dyke, but has been under the stewardship of Smith since.
Smith last won the Belmont Stakes in 2013 riding Palace Malice.
“Just winning the Belmont, that’s all I’m really thinking about,” Smith said at Santa Anita about the possibility of winning a Triple Crown. “I’m not putting it all together as far as the first and second one. Those are [races] that we’re blessed to have already won. I feel pretty good because New York is kind of home for me and I’ve ridden on that race track for many years. It’s one of my favorites to ride.”
What’s stood out to Smith and Baffert is Justify’s durability.
“I love these horses where you can tell a week later if they’re losing weight,” Baffert said. “He’s holding his weight, which is realty important. We emphasize on their weight because when they start getting lighter and thinner that means it’s catching up to him, all this racing. He seems like he’s handling it well.”
Baffert has captured five Belmont Stakes, which is less than his Derby (11) and Preakness (nine) win totals.