The journey started in early February when trainer Bob Baffert walked into the office of Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle to inquire whether there would be enough entrants for an upcoming maiden race.
“I have a horse in there that can win the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert told Hammerle.
Who would have thought Baffert was underselling that horse?
On Saturday at Belmont Park, Justify is looking to join the highest stratum of horse racing immortality by becoming the 13th thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown.
Before the Kentucky Derby three years ago, some believed that the Triple Crown was a relic of a bygone time and that changes in the industry made winning the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a five-week span no longer possible. It had been 37 years since Affirmed completed the feat.
Then came American Pharoah.
Justify, if he wins Saturday, will forever be linked to American Pharoah, who also was trained by Baffert. If he loses, he will join Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) as Baffert-trained horses who came up one victory short.
Justify could join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown. He also could become the first horse to accomplish that feat without having raced as a 2-year-old. And he will have run the fewest races — six.
All signs point to his being able to win, just as they had for the 13 other horses who failed in the third race after Affirmed won in 1978.
When exercise rider Humberto Gomez finished galloping Justify around the track Friday morning, he stopped to yell at Baffert, “He loves this track.” He repeated it for everyone listening.
Justify has looked good in his two practice trips around the giant 1 1/2-mile track.
“He’s just moving over the track really well,” Baffert said Friday. “This is what a trainer hopes to see the day before a horse runs. Coming off the track, he was just full of himself. He seems like he’s still improving. I know he’s going to show up and run his race.
“But he still has to get around there and he has to break well, and he needs racing luck, which is out of our control. I couldn’t be happier with him. He looks no different than American Pharoah did coming in here. We just have to wait and see how everything goes.”
There are 10 horses entered in the race, and only Justify and Bravazo will have run in all three Triple Crown races. Bravazo finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness.
Bravazo (sixth), Hofburg (seventh), Vino Rosso (ninth), Free Drop Billy (16th) and Noble Indy (17th) all ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness. Tenfold (third) ran in the Preakness but not the Derby.
Restoring Hope, who runs for Baffert, and Blended Citizen, trained by Doug O’Neill, are running their first Triple Crown race.
The colt that is considered most likely to beat Justify is Hofburg, who is the second choice — 9-2 to Justify’s 4-5. Hofburg had a troubled race in Louisville and has had five weeks to recover.
“It was not a good trip for him,” trainer Bill Mott said. “He had to steady and tap on the breaks a couple times. When he found a path, the race was over. He finally got out in the stretch, and he re-rallied a little bit. … It bodes well that he was able to get restarted again.”
Even Mott agrees, though, that it’s Justify’s race to lose.
Baffert has been at ease this week and was even seen wearing a cap for a private jet company that entered into a sponsorship agreement with the owners of Justify. It lasted only a few minutes before he put the cap on his son, Bode, allowing Baffert to display his signature head of white hair.
“I’m enjoying this a little bit more,” Baffert said. “With Pharoah, we knew he was training really well, but still there’s that doubt: Can it be done? … [Now we know] it can be done. And if he’s truly that great of a horse that we think he is, he can do it.”
The comparisons between American Pharoah and Justify end when they are off the track. Baffert often described American Pharoah as a “sweet, kind horse,” a characteristic he has carried with him to the breeding shed.
Justify, not so much.
Baffert acknowledges having been bitten by the colt a few days ago.
“He’s a handful. You have to watch him,” the trainer said. “He likes to push you around. He’s not a mean horse, but his patience level with people is like five seconds.”
He seems to get along with other horses — or at least he knows how to get their attention.
On Wednesday, when Justify got off the van and walked into the barn, he created a bit of a stir.
“All the horses in the barn were screaming and yelling,” Baffert said, taking some anthropomorphic liberties. “I don’t know. He got their attention somehow. It was almost like they were greeting him. It’s a pretty cool thing.”
There will be 90,000 people greeting him Saturday as he enters the top of the stretch, possibly on his way to history.
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