Admit it, Thoroughbred racing world, you’re thinking Triple Crown.
“That’s premature,” Elliott Walden, CEO and President of WinStar Farm, a major player in Justify’s ownership group, said Sunday morning in the bright sunlight outside of the Kentucky Derby winner’s barn at Churchill Downs. “It’s early for that.”
Early, yes. Implausible, not at all. When a 3-year-old colt makes his racing debut 77 days before the Kentucky Derby, dominates three prep races, one a Grade 1, then turns away 19 talented competitors despite a sloppy track, a quick early pace and Apollo’s Curse to win the world’s most important race, the mind ponders possibilities.
“No, not yet, not yet. I’m not thinking that way,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “Right now I’m just thinking just keep him healthy and we got another one in a couple of weeks.”
The day after his triumph, Justify appeared anxious for more. When Baffert brought the big, red son of Scat Daddy out of Barn 33 for a brief viewing by media and fans, Justify was rambunctious to the point where the trainer hustled him back to his stall.
“He’s full of himself this morning,” Baffert said.
Meanwhile, the racing public is full of dreams. After that excruciating drought between Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s Triple Crown in 2015, could the sport really be witnessing a repeat so soon?
“Arrogate and American Pharoah, I’d put Justify in the same class; just a superior horse” said Baffert, referencing a pair of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners he has trained. “I keep getting these horses. I guess someone upstairs must like me.”
The Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown on May 19 in Baltimore, enjoys a mutual admiration with Baffert. The California-based trainer has won the Maryland race six times, including all four times he’s brought a Kentucky Derby winner to Maryland — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002 and American Pharoah in 2015.
Justify’s lack of seasoning makes this scenario slightly different. The first Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 to go unraced at 2 years old, Justify didn’t make his debut until Feb. 18. He has made four career starts. And the Preakness is a quick two-week turnaround from the Derby.
On the other hand, Baffert is known to train his horses hard in the morning, to build the foundation needed for the classic races and distances.
“It’s not like he’s just had three starts,” said Walden of Justify. “He’s had a lot of workouts that are intense and they’re fit.”
Might that help an inexperienced horse like Justify with the short time between the two races?
“I do,” Walden said. “And he’s also such a big horse. He’s got a lot of flesh on him. What we found with Super Saver (WinStar’s first Derby winner in 2010) was he just lightened up after the Derby. It was such an effort for him he couldn’t make that turnaround.”
The type of opposition Justify might face in Baltimore was uncertain Sunday. Trainer Chad Brown indicated he was leaning toward bringing second-place finisher Good Magic to the Preakness. Brown won the race last year with Cloud Computing and remained pleased with Good Magic’s performance on Saturday.
“I really couldn’t be prouder of my horse,” Brown said.
Audible’s third-place finish was the best of Todd Pletcher’s four Derby entries. And the trainer is not a fan of brief prep time between races, unless he has a Derby winner such as last year with Always Dreaming and Super Saver in 2010, both of whom failed the second test. Pletcher is more likely to save his stock for the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
Meanwhile, Sunday at least, Baffert was resisting the Triple Crown talk.
“We won the toughest one, the most important one,” said the trainer. “Next he runs in the Preakness and after that we’ll see. If I like the way he comes out of that, we’ll take a shot in the Belmont. We’re taking it one race at a time.”