CRAWFORD | Baffert back for more: Justify adds to trainer's Kentucky Derby history
Bob Baffert became just the second trainer to win the Kentucky Derby five times with Justify's 2 1/2-length win on Saturday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Bob Baffert didn’t need this. In some ways, everything that has happened since American Pharoah’s fantastic run to the Triple Crown and beyond has seemed like a denouement.
The big story has happened. It was not the end, but certainly the climax of a career and the culmination of the hopes of a generation of horse racing fans and participants. It was the mountaintop. The credits aren’t rolling, but the orchestra is ready to play. The rest, as they say, is gravy.
That’s somewhat appropriate, come to think of it. Because the track that Baffert’s colt Justify ran over to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby Saturday looked like gravy after the wettest Derby day in history.
Justify stepped off the van at Churchill Downs on Monday of last week looking like the favorite. In the midst of a crop of talented thoroughbreds, he was the biggest and most muscular, but he moved with the grace of a classic winner, long strides, fluid motion.
Baffert mentioned James in his post-race comments, saying of Justify, “It’s like having LeBron James on your team. . . . You better win a championship with him.”
At the same time, Baffert has won the big prize. He said last week he had some nervousness, but he didn’t feel pressure. He was late for the post-position draw, looking for a parking spot at Churchill Downs. He rolled into the draw ceremony and couldn't see the big board in the front of the room. He saw WDRB's Rick Bozich and Katie George nearby and asked, "What'd we get?"
“If I was (jockey) Mike Smith I’d feel a lot more pressure,” Baffert said before the race. “For us, we got him here, but to win this race, you’ve got to have some luck and a good trip and a great ride.”
Justify got all of those things. He burned through some of the fastest early fractions in modern Kentucky Derby history, then held on to cover the mile and a half in 2:04.20, the second-slowest winning time in 28 years over a sloppy track in a persistent rain. He won by 2 1/2 lengths over 2-year-old champion Good Magic, with Todd Pletcher's Audible a head behind that.
Baffert wasn’t completely optimistic after the early fractions. Outside his barn on Thursday, talking about pace, Baffert said, “If they go a half (mile) in 45 and change it won’t be Justify on the lead.” They went a half mile in 45.77 seconds, and Justify was just off the pace burned by Firenze Fire.
“I was not liking things at all," Baffert said. "I was preparing my wife for a loss. We were ready to head out the gate as soon as they passed the wire. . . . When I saw 22 and change (in the first quarter mile) I thought, wow, man. My wife Jill is next to me and saying, 'Oh, too fast. Oh.'"
If anything, Smith said he was holding Justify back.
“He’s just a special, special horse,” Smith said. “Those things come very comfortable to him. Even though we went in 45, I was leaning back on him more than I normally would. He’s just so athletic, he gets over the ground so easy. Sometimes you’ve just got to let a fast horse be fast.”
So here we are again. As a trainer, as a sport, the Triple Crown once again is in the crosshairs. For Baffert, it’s an encore. It’s also a legitimate opportunity.
All four previous times Baffert has won the Derby, he has gone on to win the Preakness and threaten Triple Crown history in the Belmont. He’s won the Preakness six times in all.
Being here again, for Baffert, is different. The first time he won the Derby, with Silver Charm in 1997, he said it felt like “an out of body experience.”
After winning his fifth on Saturday, with very little drama in the race from start to finish, Baffert said, “It hasn’t sunk in. When you’re the heavy favorite like this and you know you have the right horse, you just want to do everything right.”
The colt is owned by a wide-ranging partnership, Winstar Farm, Jack Wolf’s Starlight Racing (Wolf became the first Louisville owner to win the Derby since 1914), China Horse Club and Head of Plains Partners.
Elliott Walden, who manages WinStar, said the decision was made to send this $500,000 colt to Baffert, but that they watched him closely.
“If you send a horse to Baffert, you want to make sure he’s in the main barn,” Walden said. “He had to spend some time at Los Alamitos (Baffert’s New Mexico training operation), but once he got to California, he could see that he could run.”
Baffert listened to all the comments, smiling. Smith, who had ridden Bodiemeister, the last favorite not to win the Kentucky Derby, became the second-oldest jockey ever to win the race, at age 52.
All this history, and a colt that looks for all the world as if he’s poised to make more. The ninth unbeaten winner of the Kentucky Derby. The first to win the race as an unraced 2-year-old since 1882.
Those closing credits will have to wait. Baffert has another Triple Crown to pursue.
“Just enjoy the moment, that’s the way I feel right now,” he said. “I’m just so fortunate to have a horse like this. I feel like he’s in a class with the best horses I’ve had. He’s on another level. . . . That last hundred yards, I knew the last eighth he was going to win. I was just in awe of the performance. That's the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I've brought here. He just did it. He put himself up there with the greats.”
And when Baffert says that, everybody knows what it means.
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