OK, Bob Baffert you've been through this before. Fifth time going for the Triple Crown. Three heart-breaking losses, one historic win. Walk us through it.
"I think it's a little bit different (this time)," said the trainer Sunday morning before departing Pimlico. "Before, it was like well we're going to go there and it's going to be difficult, something always goes wrong or whatever, or the horse has to be doing well. But I just feel with this horse, he's so talented, something could go wrong, and he'll still win."
This horse is Justify, who Saturday sliced through the heavy slop and the dense fog to dispose of a hard-riding Good Magic and hold off a hard-charging Bravazo to add the 143rd Preakness Stakes to his victory in the 144th Kentucky Derby.
Saturday was no walk in the park. The grind of five races in 12 weeks for a colt that did not make it to the track as a two-year-old and did not make his racing debut until Feb. 18 took its toll. Had the Triple Crown's second jewel been a mile and a quarter instead of a mile and 3/16, it would be D. Wayne Lukas, Bravazo's trainer, with seven Preakness wins instead of Baffert.
The Belmont Stakes on June 9 will be harder still. There waiting patiently in New York will be a set of fresh horses from a three-year-old crop that most have tabbed as one of the strongest in years. We're talking My Boy Jack (a late-running fifth in the Derby), the dangerous Hofburg (seventh) and Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso (ninth), among others who skipped the Preakness.
The wild card is Audible, the Florida Derby winner who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, but who shares the same ownership group with Justify, thus raising a difficult question. Do you run one against the other with a Triple Crown on the line?
Elliott Walden, president of WinStar, who owns the two horses in partnership with China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing, was non-committal Sunday as to future plans.
Meanwhile, Good Magic is a New York no-go. Before the Preakness, trainer Chad Brown said he did not believe the son of Curlin could get the Belmont's mile-and-a-half distance. After the Preakness, Brown was fuming over jockey Jose Ortiz's decision to press Justify early in the race.
"He's not a horse who should be on the lead," Brown said. "No way."
To Baffert, however, the race tactic showed Justify possessed another tool in his toolbox.
"He did something totally different yesterday," Baffert said. "He got challenged early. Good Magic was just pushing him out the whole way."
That caused Justify to use more energy earlier than his previous races and explained the drama when, as the horses appeared from the fog that enveloped the turn for home, several horses were nipping at Justify's heels.
"He didn't have a lot of kick at the end," Baffert admitted, "but Mike (Smith, the jockey) said he could have won by more."
The win is the important thing. The big, red son of Scat Daddy is now a perfect five-for-five, with three consecutive Grade 1 triumphs, starting with the Santa Anita Derby way back on April 7.
"For what he's done, fifth race, it's pretty incredible," Baffert said. "I'm still in awe of the horse."
In fact, Baffert can't stop comparing Justify to American Pharoah, who won the Triple Crown for him in 2015 after Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) failed.
To the trainer, Saturday's Preakness was reminiscent of American Pharoah's Kentucky Derby when Pharoah did not run his best race but was able to find the gear to get the job done.
"American Pharoah, when he won the Derby, when he hit the quarter pole he was empty and won the Derby, and he came back," said Baffert on Sunday. "I think (Justify's) next race will be really big. You can't just bring it every time. This will set him up for the next one."
For Justify to win the Belmont and become the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner, the next one will have to be a big one.
Triple Crown winners