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Justify poised to justify Triple Crown hype in Belmont Stakes

Justify, left, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, leads

Justify, left, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, leads the field before winning the 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday in Baltimore. Credit: Getty Images / Todd Olszewski

BALTIMORE — Triple Crown hopeful Justify emerged from Pimlico’s stakes barn at 8:30 a.m. Sunday and posed briefly for a photo op. Then trainer Bob Baffert led him to a horse trailer for a ride to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a flight back to Louisville.

Baffert plans to prepare Justify for the Belmont Stakes the same way he did with American Pharoah three years ago. The Kentucky Derby-Preakness champion will train at Churchill Downs and most likely ship to Belmont Park on June 6, three days before the 150th “Test of the Champion.”

“We’ll just get him back to Kentucky and we’ll see how he trains,” Baffert said. “He has to be doing really well.”

As for going to the Belmont, he said: “Right now, I don’t see why not.”

The undefeated chestnut colt will get a few days of rest after Saturday’s Preakness, by far the toughest test of his brief career. Justify was fully extended for the first time, dueling on the lead with Derby runner-up Good Magic before getting clear of him in midstretch and holding off Bravazo by a half-length.

“He’s just a great horse, to handle all that pressure and keep on running,” Baffert said. “He really had to work for it and I’m happy we pulled it out. It took a lot out of me, more out of me than him.”

That will be determined by how well Justify bounces back from his fifth race starting with his career debut Feb. 18 at Santa Anita.

“He was blowing. You could tell he was in a fight the whole way,’’ Baffert said. “You can only get away with that when you have a superior horse like he is.”

The Daily Racing Form reported that Justify earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 97, the first time he’s been below 101. He’ll have to move forward off the Preakness to win the 1½-mile Belmont, which shapes up as even tougher than the Preakness.

After five days of relentless rain, Mother Nature finally gave the all clear. It was sunny and seasonably warm Sunday just as the Preakness horses began to gallop off in all directions. According to the New York Racing Association, Bravazo and Tenfold, who missed second by a neck in the Preakness, will take on Justify again, as will Derby also-rans Vino Rosso, Hofburg, Free Drop Billy and Big Boy Jack along with Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen. Good Magic, Lone Sailor, Sporting Chance and Quip were not being considered for the Belmont.

After Audible finished a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher said he was pointing him for the Belmont, which he won last year with Tapwrit. But according to numerous sources, Audible will not be entered. The reason: WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Head of Plains Racing own majority interests in both Justify and Audible. It would make no sense to enter a top-class horse who could deny your superstar a Triple Crown.

Then again, WinStar and China Horse Club also control Quip, who finished last in the Preakness. Audible is a much more accomplished colt, however, and would be a serious threat to Justify.

Elliott Walden, WinStar’s CEO and president, is the point man for Justify’s owners. Twenty years ago, Walden trained Victory Gallop, who denied Baffert’s Real Quiet the Triple Crown by a nose in the Belmont. Both men know how hard it is to pull off the sweep, and that everything has to go right.

“If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen,” said Walden, who is very religious. “And if not, it just won’t.”

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