Bill Belichick attended the Preakness as a guest of one of Justify’s ownership groups. As he stood next to trainer Bob Baffert in Pimlico’s foggy, soggy winner’s circle, the New England Patriots coach checked out the imposing chestnut colt draped with the blanket of Black-Eyed Susans. Baffert asked Belichick if Justify played football, where would he play?
“Definitely would be defense,” said the master of ‘D’.
Once again, the 1,280-pound Justify had held his ground courageously and refused to let an opponent get past him. In the Kentucky Derby, he left behind Good Magic after setting hot fractions with the rabbit Promises Fulfilled. In the Preakness, Justify went head to head with Good Magic before shaking him off and turning back a late move by Bravazo.
His next race will be the ultimate test. Can the undefeated Justify navigate 1½ miles in the 150th Belmont Stakes June 9 and become the 13th thoroughbred immortal? “The Test of the Champion” will be his sixth race crammed into less than four months. No other horse ever made his career debut in February and went for the Triple Crown that June.
Too much stress in too little time? Many handicappers think so, and they’ll be betting against the favorite. Yet if anyone can pull it off, it’s Baffert, who three years ago ended a 36-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah. Justify will be Baffert’s fifth shot at one of the rarest trophies in sport. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons is the only trainer to raise it twice, with Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).
Baffert was concerned that Justify had emptied out in the Pimlico muck. “My first thought was, well, we won the race, but Triple Crown, I don’t know,” he told WFAN’s Mike Francesa on Monday. “We got to the bottom of this horse.”
Jockey Mike Smith disagreed. “Right after the race, Mike told me, ‘Bob, I could have won by more [than a half-length]. I was coasting, they came to me and he took off again,’ ” Baffert said.
In the next few days, Baffert’s confidence grew.
“He’s bigger and [100 pounds] heavier than Pharoah, and he’s recovered from the Preakness much quicker than Pharoah did,” he said. “I really think the Preakness will move him forward. It was his hardest race yet, and I think that will toughen him up.
“It’s all about recovery and energy, and he holds his flesh well. He’s a beast.”
Baffert returned Sunday to California while Justify and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes went to Churchill Downs, where Justify prepped for the Preakness. Baffert plans to give him one or two timed workouts before shipping to New York, probably June 6. It’s the same schedule Pharoah followed.
After four days off, Justify galloped Thursday and Friday and Barnes thought he looked as peppy as ever. “He’s a chowhound, eats up everything,” he said. “Couldn’t be happier with his weight, his flesh, his color.”
Baffert excels in extended campaigns, and his stars hold their form longer than almost anyone else’s. Of his Triple Crown hopefuls who lost the Belmont, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) finished second, with Real Quiet denied by a nose. Only War Emblem (2002) flopped, finishing eighth in 2002.
Besides Bravazo and Tenfold, third in the Preakness, Justify’s possible opponents include his stablemate Restoring Hope; Derby also-rans Vino Rosso, Noble Indy, Hofburg, Free Drop Billy and My Boy Jack; Blended Citizen; England-based Gronkowski and Irish shipper Bandua.
Unless Noble Indy is a pacesetter for stablemate Vino Rosso, none of them looks capable of challenging Justify on the lead, where his high cruising speed is a significant advantage. If he can set a leisurely, uncontested pace, as Pharoah did, he could be long gone while 90,000 fans go berserk.
Not if trainer D. Wayne Lukas can help it. Before the Preakness, Baffert’s longtime friend, rival and former idol called Justify “King Kong” and predicted he’d win the Triple Crown. Now Lukas will try to turn Belmont Park into Skull Island. Can Bravazo kill the beast?
“A very good horse won the Preakness,” Lukas said. “Bob’s tough in these races, and if he gets the right horse, he’s really tough. But, kudos to him, and we’ll see what happens in the next one.”
ARE YOU INEXPERIENCED?
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify has made fewer starts before the Belmont Stakes than any of the 12 Triple Crown champions. Unlike them, he didn’t race as a 2-year-old. The pre-Belmont starts of Justify and the Triple Crown winners:
HorseTriple Crown Year
7 American Pharoah2015
8 Seattle Slew*1977
9 Sir Barton1919
10 Gallant Fox 1930
10 War Admiral 1937
14 Omaha 1935
20 Count Fleet1943
*Entered the Belmont Stakes undefeated