Nearly three years after American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost four decades, Southern California trainer Bob Baffert is preparing another one of his star pupils — Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify — for a chance to complete the same daunting feat at next month’s Belmont Stakes.
“I know he’s the best horse. If I have him right and he runs his race, then, you know, he’s got to get the mile and a half (distance),” Baffert said Thursday at his home base at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. “After going through the Triple Crown, I think it just takes a superior horse. You have to be the best of your crop and that’s what he is.”
Baffert said he knew early on that the imposing chestnut colt was going to be something special.
Justify — who is undefeated in five starts — was unraced as a 2-year-old and ran in his first career start in February at Santa Anita, winning by 9 1/2 lengths. He subsequently went on to victory in two other races at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby, while on his way to the Triple Crown trail.
Less than four months after his first race, the colt with just under $3 million in earnings will likely be the heavy favorite in the most grueling of the three legs of the Triple Crown.
Baffert said he thinks Justify will move forward off his win by a half-length over Bravazo in the Preakness.
“He’s had five races just right in a row and he’s been handling it really well,” he said, adding that Justify has “got everything it takes to go through these Triple Crown races.”
“He’s that student who’s so smart he doesn’t have to study that hard,” Baffert said, calling the colt a “big, strong horse” who’s got a “great mind” and a fondness for food.
“He’s an eatin’ machine,” Baffert told reporters. “(Assistant trainer) Jimmy (Barnes) called him a chow hound. He’s always been a chow hound so we have that going for him. … A lot of these horses, you can tell like a week later, you can tell if they’re losing weight. He’s holding his weight which is really important for these horses … because when they start getting lighter and thinner that means it’s catching up to them, all this racing. But he seems like he’s handling it really well.”
When asked about the similarities between American Pharoah and his latest Triple Crown contender, Baffert said the two are “different types of horses,” but one thing they have in common is the way they move over the ground and “sort of make their own racing luck because they’re quick and they can get out of a jam.”
He called American Pharoah a “brilliant race horse” who loved human contact and would “put his head in your lap,” but he said Justify will “give you maybe 3, 4, 5 seconds and then he’s done with you.”
Jockey Mike Smith has ridden Justify in all but his first start and said he is very confident about the colt’s prospects June 9 in the Belmont on a track he said he thinks Justify will “love.”
“… I think if he’s blessed with the opportunity, he’s got the kind of ability that can pull something like this off. In saying that, he’s got to go out and do it so we still have a job to be done,” Smith said.
He noted that he watched American Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, during his successful Triple Crown run in 2015, and that he’s only thinking about one race at a time as Espinoza did.
“Just winning the Belmont — that’s all I’m really thinking about,” Smith said. “I’m not really putting it all together. As far as the first and second one, those are something that we are blessed to have already won. … I’m just happy that we’ve got this opportunity and I’m ready for it and focused and can’t wait.”
The jockey said he doesn’t have any idea how he’s going to feel if he wins his first Triple Crown aboard Justify.
“It already feels amazing, I can’t even imagine,” he said.
Justify’s trainer said he realizes how difficult it is for a horse to win the Triple Crown, noting the 37-year drought between Triple Crown winners before American Pharoah won in 2015.
“I was so blessed that I had American Pharoah. When he retired, I’ll never forget how sad I was,” Baffert said. “I said, `Wow, I’ll never have another horse like that.’ Then here comes Arrogate (who had a seven-race win streak that included wins in three of the world’s richest thoroughbred horse races) and he’s gone (to become a stallion). … Boom, here comes Justify. I just hopes this keeps on going.”