Bob Baffert was killing time with his kids on the backside at Belmont Park on Saturday, waiting for the horses to be called to the paddock for the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, when someone mentioned that, just like three years prior, the kid in the Burger King costume was in attendance.
“Oh yeah,” exclaimed Baffert with that fun-loving grin of his, “the king is back!”
No Bob, you're the king.
The amazing comet that is Justify proved that, bursting on the scene to win the Kentucky Derby, surviving the fog to win the Preakness, then leading wire-to-wire over the mile-and-a-half on Saturday to become just the sport's 13th Triple Crown champion.
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Joining Seattle Slew as the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner, Justify finished 1 3/4 lengths in front of English invader Gronkowski, who finished strong at 25-1 for trainer Chad Brown. Hofburg, second choice in the wagering at 5-1, finished third for trainer Bill Mott.
Justify's triumph was a crowning achievement for Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm in Woodford County, the majority owners in a partnership with China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and SF Racing.
"To make history like this is just an incredible feeling," said WinStar CEO Elliott Walden, who in his previous life as a trainer spoiled Baffert's attempt at a Triple Crown in 1998 when Victory Gallop beat Real Quiet. "We just feel really blessed to have his horse."
Said Troutt, "I was yelling and screaming. I was going crazy down the stretch."
The victory came just three years after American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert, snapped the agonizing 37-year drought in 2015 to become the first colt to win the three classic races since Affirmed in 1978.
“This one is a different deal,” said Baffert before joining Jim "Sunny Fitz" Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox in 1930; Omaha in 1935) as the second trainer to condition two Triple Crown winners. "It has a different feel."
Indeed it did. American Pharoah was a seasoned colt who followed the typical path to his date with destiny. Justify was anything but typical. The son of Scat Daddy didn't make his racing debut until Feb. 18, didn't make his stakes debut until winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
Less than a month later, Justify became the first Kentucky Derby winner to go unraced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. Two weeks later, his shortest time between races, he captured the Preakness. Three weeks after that, he won his sixth race in as many starts to win the Triple Crown.
"To win six races in this short amount of time is just unbelievable," said jockey Mike Smith afterward. "Bob just did an unbelievable job to do what we've just done."
Give Troutt and Walden credit. WinStar likes to spread its horses around to different trainers. It won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, trained by Todd Pletcher. It won the 2016 Belmont with Creator, trained by Steve Asmussen. But it matched the right horse with the right trainer by sending Justify to Baffert.
"One of the things that I thought was important that we were behind the eight-ball," said Walden. "We wanted to give him every opportunity. The California weather is very consistent. He looked like a very good horse and we hired a very good trainer, maybe the greatest of all time."
"Give them the credit," said Baffert of WinStar. "They found the horse."
And Baffert trained him to his 15th Triple Crown victory — five Kentucky Derby wins; seven Preakness wins; three Belmont wins — putting him one win in front of his old rival and friend D. Wayne Lukas, who trained Bravazo to a sixth-place finish in the Belmont.
Still, as happy-go-lucky as he seemed before the race, Baffert was unusually emotional in his post-race television interview.
"I'm getting help upstairs," he said in the press conference. "My (late) parents are helping me and friends I've lost. I really believe that. I'm just very fortunate."
And, as Walden said, maybe the greatest trainer of all time.