Bob Baffert: As a trainer, this is what you hope for
As he walked back to Barn 1 on an utterly gorgeous Friday morning after watching Justify gallop over the Belmont Park racing surface one final time, his trainer Bob Baffert laid it all out nice and slow.
"If he's great," said Baffert, "he'll do it."
You can't put it any better than that heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner attempts to write his name into the horse racing record books by becoming the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner.
Is Justify truly great?
"This is what a trainer hopes to see the day before his horse runs," said Baffert during a Friday press conference in Belmont Park's Champagne Room. "He just seems like he's still improving."
Proving greatness is never an easy feat, of course. And despite his perfect 5-for-5 career record, Justify still has plenty of questions to answer as he tries the grueling mile-and-a-half, the longest distance any 3-year-old has gone to this point.
Can Justify get the mile-and-a-half? No problem, claims Baffert. True, Justify was nearly caught at the wire in the fogged-up Preakness. Runner-up Bravazo lost by a mere half-length in the mile-and-three-sixteenths race. Misleading, says Baffert. Believing he was comfortably ahead, jockey Mike Smith raised his foot ever so slightly off the accelerator in the final strides.
Will the No. 1 post position be a problem? After Tuesday's post position draw, Baffert admitted he's not crazy about the rail. The last Belmont winner to break from the No. 1 hole was Empire Maker in 2003. But that's where the 52-year-old Smith's experience comes into play. Baffert is betting on "Big Money Mike."
Can a colt who did not race before Feb. 18 of this year, really win the Triple Crown? He's two-thirds of the way there and for the final act, Baffert points to Point Given, his 2001 Belmont winner. Point Given was a huge, muscular colt undeterred by the Triple Crown wear and tear. Justify is the same sort of big, muscular horse who appears to have given barely an ounce to the grind.
Can Justify win a Triple Crown race on a dry track? After early-week projections of rain — even from Baffert's meteorological-obsessed son Bode — Saturday's forecast is bright and sunny. Even though Justify loved the slop in both the Derby and the Preakness, Baffert has no qualms about a dry track. "I prefer it this way," said the trainer on Friday.
Can Justify overcome his owners messing with the racing Gods? The colt won the Derby and Preakness in the crisp white colors of majority owner WinStar Farm. For the Belmont, however, Smith will don the red-and-gold silks of China Horse Club, owner of the next biggest stake. This is known as tempting fate.
Last but not least, is there a horse in the field good enough to beat Justify? Why, yes. You can make solid cases for a handful of Saturday's entries, including Hofburg (second choice at 9-2 in the Morning Line), Bravazo (8-1), Vino Rosso (8-1), English import Gronkowski (12-1) and Tenfold (12-1).
Hofburg has the breeding. He's the son of Tapit, who has remarkably produced three of the last four Belmont winners — Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017). Hofburg's seventh-place finish in the Derby was at least partially the result of a troubled trip. He ran better than his number.
Meanwhile, Vino Rosso despised the Churchill Downs slop, in which he finished 17th, but won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial on a dry track. And his trainer, Todd Pletcher, has done well allowing his Derby runners five weeks rest before the Belmont. Tapwrit followed that formula to the winner's circle a year ago.
Bottom line: After Justify's less-than-dominant Pimlico performance, I doubted he could duplicate American Pharoah's phenomenal feat of 2015. In the three weeks since, however, Baffert's colt has looked so good and worked so well, it's difficult to pick against him.
If he's great, he'll do it. And Justify sure looks great.
6:37 p.m. Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. (NBC-18)