CRAWFORD | Justify's Triple Crown time has come -- can anyone stop him?
Justify has run through rain and mud and adversity to bring trainer Bob Baffert and his owners to this point. Now it's time for Justify's Triple Crown moment.
BELMONT, N.Y. — To get to the farm where Justify learned to be a racehorse, you have two choices. You can drive down Frankfort Pike, among the the most scenic and historic routes in Kentucky, older than the state itself. Or you can take Versailles Road, and turn when you get to a castle. Either way, you reach WinStar Farm.
And either way is appropriate for a colt who in Saturday's Belmont Stakes will seek to arrive at the intersection of history and racing royalty as the 13th winner of the Triple Crown.
On Friday, a day before the Belmont, trainer Bob Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, inserted earplugs into the colt’s ears and led him to the track. Justify galloped easily down the backstretch, around the sweeping turn for home almost without being noticed, and toward the finish line. If he gets there first on Saturday, he’ll be only the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner, joining Seattle Slew. And he’ll be one of the most improbable, having only raced for the first time on Feb. 18.
Baffert is looking for his second Triple Crown after winning here in 2015 with American Pharoah to end a 37-year drought for the sport. Everything about that run seemed storybook. And while Justify’s journey to this point might be a better story, he hasn’t quite generated the following at the barn, or on the track, that American Pharoah did.
But for Baffert, the trip is every bit as special.
“It’s a business built on dreams,” Baffert said. “And when they do come to life, it’s pretty amazing. The run that we’ve been on has been incredible. I can’t believe I’ve been on this kind of run, but I have a great support system.”
He also has plenty of competition. Justify will take on nine others. It would be the most ever beaten in the Belmont by a Triple Crown winner. Every trainer in the race has won a Triple Crown race. All but one is more rested than Justify, who was the 4-5 morning-line favorite.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott might have the colt to end Justify’s dream bid. Hofburg (9-2 second-choice) ran seventh in the Derby after a horrible trip, then came to New York to train for this moment.
Mott won the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer. But he saddled a Belmont winner long before that. Twenty years ago, trainer Elliott Walden was running a colt in the Belmont, but broke his ankle in a pickup basketball game during the week and turned to Mott to put the saddle on. That colt was Victory Gallop, who beat Silver Charm at the wire to end the Triple Crown horse of that colt and his trainer — Bob Baffert.
Walden, to complete the circle, now is president of WinStar Farm, part-owner in Justify.
Maybe the stars will align for Mott again. Maybe they will align for Walden.
Or maybe, as most trainers in this race — five of whom have won it — will tell you, stars have nothing to do with it.
“You have to have the horse,” Mott said. “We can train them to stretch them out and make a fast horse run a little farther. But in the end, there’s no strategy once the gate opens that can carry you.”
If bloodlines are important, few are in better position than Hofburg, whose sire, Tapit, has produced three of the past four Belmont winners. The only break in the string was Frosted, who finished second to American Pharoah.
Lukas has won the race four times, and trains Bravazo, the co-third-choice at 9-2, who was fifth in the Kentucky Derby and a fast-closing second in the Preakness. Now he’s in New York, hoping he can finish the job.
“I think we probably missed our best chance at him in the Preakness,” Baffert said of Justify. “I think he’s going to be ready. We’re not going to get a base on balls.”
Bravazo is attempting to do it the hard way. Since 2008, only 13 horses who didn’t have a Triple Crown on the line ran all three legs. Five of those were trained by Lukas. One of them is Bravazo.
They’ve been asking Lukas all week what it would feel like to prevent history from happening by beating Justify.
But if Lukas wins, it is history. It would be his 15th win in a Triple Crown race, breaking a tie with Baffert, and it would be a return to racing glory for Calumet Farm, which produced eight Kentucky Derby winners and a pair of Triple Crown winners — Whirlaway and Citation — before falling upon hard times.
The other third-choice in the morning line is Vino Rosso, one of two Derby returnees in the race trained by Todd Pletcher, a two-time Preakness winner.
Pletcher is one of several high-profile trainers who have kept a rather low profile this week. On Friday, he sent his horses to the training track at Belmont, away from the cameras. His other Belmont entry is Noble Indy.
Doug O’Neill, whose I’ll Have Another didn’t make the Belmont after winning both the Derby and Preakness in 2012, will try to capture a belated third leg with Blended Citizen, a splendid looking colt who missed out on the Kentucky Derby on points. He has plenty of seasoning. The Belmont will be his 11th race.
The only Grade 1 stakes win in the field besides those earned by Justify belongs to Dale Romans’ Free Drop Billy.
Watching his colt stroll around the paddock on Friday, Romans declared himself satisfied.
“I know he’s bred for the distance,” Romans said. “He deserves to be in this, and I think he’ll show that.”
Steve Asmussen, who won the Belmont with Curlin, brings in Tenfold, who finished third in the Preakness and who has been training impressively at Churchill Downs.
And there’s Chad Brown, whose colt Gronkowski garners national attention because of his name, and because his NFL namesake, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, bought a share of the colt before the Kentucky Derby. Brown is just weeks removed from getting the colt, after he was trained by England-based Jeremy Noseda.
And then there’s Baffert, who in addition to Justify will send Restoring Hope into the starting gate.
Justify will have to break from the No. 1 spot. Getting to the lead will be a bit more challenging. But Baffert isn’t sweating it. Justify has followed American Pharoah’s path, runs for his trainer, even lives in the same stall in Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita. Still, he needs to win to share his legacy.
He should get to go for it on a dry track. Rain chances for Saturday have diminished in recent days for a colt who won the first two legs on wet tracks. The only other colt to do that was the great Triple Crown winner Citation. The last time he ran on a dry track, he posted the biggest speed figure of his life in the Santa Anita Derby. But for Baffert, all of these things are incidental.
“If he’s meant to win, that won’t matter,” Baffert said. “If he can’t overcome things, he wasn’t meant to win. He’s really thriving right now. I see a big difference with him. He’s getting really fit. This three weeks (between races) has really made a big difference in him. He’s been winning because he’s so talented. After seeing him here the past two days, I’m very happy. I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I’d feel it if I thought the horse might be getting tired. But this horse has not showed any signs of regression at all. If he did, we wouldn’t be here. He’s a valuable, beautiful horse. The last thing I want to do is embarrass him. He’s been so good to us, and given us this great journey. I think he’s ready to do his thing.”
Back at the barn, Barnes removed Justify's ear plugs. He won't wear them for the race. He'll hear the horses coming at him. He'll hear the hoofbeats. And if he approaches that finish line with the lead again, he'll hear the roar.
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