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Justify goes for history in the Belmont Stakes

Justify works out with exercise rider Humberto Gomez

Justify works out with exercise rider Humberto Gomez at Belmont on Friday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Less than four months ago, Justify was just another name on the workout tab. He’d never been in a race, and no one knew much about him except Bob Baffert and his staff. Now the massive chestnut colt is world famous, and late Saturday afternoon he’ll go for the ultimate achievement in thoroughbred racing. A crowd of 90,000 will fill immense Belmont Park, and tens of millions will watch on television.

Justify made history by becoming the first Kentucky Derby winner since 1882 who didn’t run as a 2-year-old. Now he’ll try to join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated horses to sweep the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. He also would be the first to do it in his sixth start. Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown champion, ran 19 times before the Belmont after making his career debut in April 1947. Justify’s first race was Feb. 18.

The greatest thoroughbreds used to be iron horses. Is Justify a throwback, or will he hit the wall? There was never any doubt about his talent, and now there is none about his courage after he overcame speed duels in Louisville and Baltimore. But does the 4-5 morning-line favorite have enough juice left to go a grueling 1½ miles after cramming so much racing in such a short time?

“Before the Derby, they were saying he couldn’t win it because he hadn’t raced enough,” Baffert said. “Now he can’t win the Belmont because he’s raced too much.

“There’s always something.”

Even when you’re perfect, sometimes you can’t win.

Can Justify become only the fourth horse in this century to hit the Preakness-Belmont double. Eleven of the past 12 Belmont winners skipped the Preakness. Except for the contrarians betting against him, most observers want to see him become the 13th immortal. It’s Baffert’s record-extending fifth Triple Crown try, and three years ago he finally got it done with American Pharoah. Only Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons trained two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).

If Justify wins, Baffert will break a tie with D. Wayne Lukas for most classic victories. Each has 14, with Baffert owning five Derby trophies, seven from the Preakness and two from the Belmont.

Santa Anita has honored three all-time greats — trainer Charlie Whittingham and jockeys Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. — by erecting statues.

“We could have another one,” Lukas said. “They’ll bronze Bob and put him in the paddock there if Justify wins. I don’t know why they don’t have Bob there. I think that’s coming.”

Lukas will send out Preakness runner-up Bravazo to try to ruin his friend’s dream. Hofburg, the 9-2 second choice, Tenfold, third in the Preakness, and closer Vino Rosso also are given a chance for an upset. Longshot Noble Indy is expected to push Justify for the lead. If not, the favorite may cruise wire to wire and inspire a deafening ovation.

Justify must break well from the rail, which hasn’t produced a Belmont winner since Empire Maker in 2003. In 2008, Triple Crown candidate Big Brown broke poorly from post 1, endured a bizarre trip and finished last at odds of 1-5. There’s no such thing as a sure thing.

Baffert is confident he has Justify ready to excel again.

“Anything can happen, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but he’s a seasoned horse now,” he said. “He’s had those five races. He’s more professional. He’s been shipped around, been in some tough fights and handled it well. I like our spot.

“He’s become a rock star, like Pharoah. Let’s see if he can do it.”

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