CRAWFORD | Pimlico rain can't dampen Baffert's excitement for Justify
Bob Baffert makes his 2018 Pimlico debut with confidence, and a relaxed Kentucky Derby champion ahead of Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Bob Baffert climbs up a ramp to a short platform on the Pimlico backside, picks up a microphone and begins to speak to the assembled media.
From a distance, it looks a little like an old-fashioned tent revival meeting, complete with a miracle – as Baffert’s Kentucky Derby winner and 1-2 Preakness favorite Justify prepared to take the track at Pimlico for the first time Thursday morning, the rain that has plagued he area for the past two days (and threatens to plague it for the next two) stopped, and the 1-2 favorite for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes was able to jog around the track in relative comfort.
“I remember when I had American Pharoah at Churchill Downs and it was raining, whenever we brought hi to the track to train it would stop,” Baffert said. “I don’t know if it’s the same thing.”
Baffert isn’t afraid to make that comparison. The two horses are of similar size. Justify, he said, probably weighs 100 pounds more than American Pharoah did when he came to Pimlico. He said Justify has similar mechanics, and moves easily over the track.
Watching Justify, I don’t see the same extension and fluidity of movement I saw with American Pharoah. But on the track Thursday, it was impressive to see such a large animal cover the sloppy surface so lightly. Granted, he wasn’t pounding it at full speed. Others on the track did, and left large splashes in their way. Justify, though he is a large colt, kissed the track quickly and moved on, leaving small splashes in his wake.
Any trainer who tells you his colt really likes the kind of track that Justify walked onto Thursday morning is lying. Yet this son of Scat Daddy has skipped over off tracks in two of his past three races and won them all.
After training with wraps on his legs at Churchill Downs, he wore none to the track at Pimlico, accentuating his thin legs below the elbow.
“He’s just light on his feet, as you saw him go around,” Baffert said. “He’s quick and smart, he’s a very intelligent horse.”
So the tent meeting goes on, with Baffert paying homage to the Preakness. He calls it his favorite of the Triple Crown races in the sense that, the tension of Derby has passed, and the pressure of Belmont still hasn’t built. Everybody is hoping the Derby winner can win. It makes for a lot of goodwill.
“It’s so relaxing,” Baffert said. “You work so hard to get to the Derby, it’s been going on for months, now everybody can settle down and take a deep breath. The public wants to see the Derby winner win. It’s exciting. The public gets out to see the horse, asking, ‘could this be the one again.’ Rain or shine they come. It’s a great place to be. The Preakness is on everybody’s Bucket List. Come to the Preakness, put on your poncho.
“I like it here because they treat you tremendously,” he goes on later. “They bend over backwards, they pick you up, if you need something they’re there for you. The grooms. They’re really horseman-friendly. We’re coming in here and we’re a little stressed out anyway, but they roll out the red carpet, and that’s nice. They’re conscientious about everybody, the grooms and everybody who works here. It’s like a family here. You come in and you see guys who have been working here the past 20 years. It never changes. Everybody loves the Preakness and can’t wait to see these good horses come in here.”
A phone rings. It’s Baffert’s. He reaches into his pocket, and see it’s his wife, Jill.
“It’s my wife,” he says, into the microphone, then answers the phone. “I’m just doing a press thing now. How are you doing? I stopped. I stopped when I saw your number. Is everything all right? (A pause.) All right, see you later.” He hangs up. “She’s at the airport. She wanted to make sure everything was all right before she got on the plane.”
Across the way Justify stands in front of a group of reporters and fans. He is being hosed off, scrubbed, brushed. He tugs at his lead, but he looks relaxed and alert.
“He’s just a good horse, that’s the main thing,” Baffert said. “I liked the way he went around there. I liked the way he came off, like he was just getting warmed up. He was ready to do a lot more, but we didn’t him to do too much. We just need to keep him happy.”
“It’s his race to lose,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said earlier in the morning. Lukas trains Bravazo, fifth in the Derby, and Sporting Chance, who also will run in the Preakness. “But I’d trade both of them for Bob’s horse.”
“If he runs his race,” Baffert grins. “That’s the thing. Every trainer, that’s what we hope for. Just let him show up. When you hit the three-eighths pole that’s when you know that he’s showed up. Right now I feel very confident that he’ll show up.”
The rain is still holding off, though probably not for long. Baffert says he’s not worried about track conditions. He won in a monsoon three years ago here with American Pharoah. He won in the rain two weeks ago in Louisville.
“This track is so much different from Churchill Downs when it gets wet,” Baffert said. “Churchill, the base is probably a little bit harder. For the amount of rain they’ve gotten, this track can probably take more water than any track I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen it dry out quickly. You just get a little wind you’d be surprised. . . . I don’t worry about the weather forecast because my son Bode, who really wants to be a meteorologist, updates me every minute about what the weather is going to be.
“He’s 13. Before I left (for the Derby) he said, ‘I hope he likes the mud.’ I got to Louisville and said, no, they all say it’s going to be nice. But you see, I think the weather channels and Churchill Downs get together to sell all those seats. And as soon as those tickets are gone, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain.’ But Bode is pretty good. He follows the Doppler and everything. He told me yesterday it was going to rain.”
Baffert can’t control what it does. But sometimes, he seems impervious to its effects. Right now, with a Derby winner and a perfect 4-for-4 record in Preakness starts with a Derby winner, is one of those times.
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