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Justify, following in the footsteps of American Pharoah, is one race away from the Triple Crown

The day after the Preakness Stakes, the sun came out for the first time in six days. And with it the reflections of those who watched Justify win the second leg of the Triple Crown also turned brighter.

The half-length victory, over a muddy track shrouded in a heavy layer of fog, had some questioning the chances of this 3-year-old colt to do what American Pharoah did three years earlier: win the Triple Crown. Justify was being caught in the stretch, something no one has seen happen to this colt in four previous races. But was it really as it appeared?

Trainer Bob Baffert had no problem with the race, even calling it a “bounce,” when a horse follows a good effort with a bad one.

“He reminded me of American Pharoah in the way he’s doing things,” said Baffert, who also trained the 2015 Triple Crown winner, standing outside the Pimlico stakes barn as Justify was getting ready to leave his stall and be transported to Churchill Downs. “He can be 90% and still win.

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“Those great horses get to the top of the stretch and you think, ‘Aw, they’re empty,’ and they still get there. When American Pharoah hit the quarter pole [in the Kentucky Derby], he was empty, yet he still won the Derby. I think [Justify’s] next race will be really big. You can’t just come and bring it all the time. This will set him up for the next one.”

The Belmont Stakes is three weeks away. The attention the race will generate will be huge. The post-position draw is going to be held Tuesday night at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets. The attendance at the track will be capped at 90,000.

It will also likely be the only time these horses will be asked to run 1 ½ miles.

Baffert, a big sports fan, often uses analogies when talking about his horses.

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“All his races have been with really tough competition,” Baffert said. “It’s like he is in the SEC and he’s been having to bang it out. Alabama only wins a few games by three or four points. They’re going to have those days.”

Baffert said that Justify wasn’t as tired as they thought he was on Saturday. He came back to his stall and ate all his food, a good sign.

The competition for the Belmont will evolve over the next two weeks.

Bravazo is likely the only horse that ran the first two legs of the Triple Crown to make the trek to Elmont, N.Y., for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer for Tenfold, was clear about his plans for New York.

“Absolutely, hell, yes,” Asmussen said.

Todd Pletcher is expected to bring back Vino Rosso, who finished a disappointing ninth at Churchill Downs.

Gronkowski is also expected to run. The colt was an automatic qualifier from Europe for the Kentucky Derby but had a minor ailment and didn’t run. His presence will probably be more of a distraction than anything else.

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The big question is if Audible, third in the Kentucky Derby, will run in the Belmont given that the colt has some of the same ownership group — WinStar Farm and China Horse Club — as Justify. WinStar’s Elliott Walden said they would make a decision later this week.

Baffert has taken a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner to New York four times, finally winning the Triple Crown with American Pharoah. That seems to have taken some of the pressure off.

“I think it’s a little bit different [this year],” Baffert said. “Before we were thinking we’re going to go there and it’ll be so difficult; something always goes wrong. I just feel with this horse, he’s so talented that something could go wrong and he’d still win. He’s a superior horse and he showed it [Saturday]. They tried something different on him and he still handled it.”

“I did have a goal to win a Triple Crown,” Baffert said. “Then when I would go for a Triple Crown, I would have to see all my losses repeated over and over and over. When American Pharoah won, the first call I got was from [owner] Mike Pegram and he said, ‘I’m glad you won because I don’t want to see any more reruns of Real Quiet getting beat.’ ”

Real Quiet lost the Triple Crown by a nose to Victory Gallop, trained by Walden.

When Justify gets back to Churchill Downs, he’ll have a few days, maybe as many as five, to recover doing little more than walking. Then he will train up until he is flown to New York, arriving possibly on Wednesday of race week.

“We won’t do a lot with him there,” Baffert said.

At least until that Saturday.

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John.A.Cherwa@gmail.com

Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa


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