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Bob Baffert saddles Justify, his fifth Kentucky Derby winner

Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory

Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory with trainer Bob Baffert, left, during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Saturday in Louisville, Ky. Credit: AP / John Minchillo

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He grew up on a cattle ranch in Nogales, Arizona, a small town way out in the sticks, not far from the Mexican border. Even as a little boy, he impressed his father, Bill, by his knack with young horses. He could always pick out the best one in the bunch, and Bob Baffert grew up to train so many thoroughbreds fitting that description.

Three years ago, Baffert guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years. On Saturday he won the world’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, for the fifth time. He’s just one win behind the late Ben Jones, a cantankerous farmboy from Missouri who was said to be half horse because of his understanding of what made thoroughbreds tick.

If the nose of Baffert’s first Derby runner, Cavonnier in 1996, had been a few inches longer, he would be tied with Jones. But after an excruciating wait for the results of the photo finish, Baffert was crushed when the number of D. Wayne Lukas’ colt Grindstone was placed first. Baffert thought he might never get back to the Derby, that he’d blown his one shot at glory. Turned out it was just brutal growing pains.

If he keeps getting horses like Justify, the undefeated champion of Saturday’s 144th Derby, he’s certain to pass Jones. Baffert, 65, also is only one win behind Lukas for most victories in the Triple Crown series. Baffert will go for his 14th overall and seventh in the Preakness Stakes on May 18 at Pimlico, and the way Justify dominated in the slop on Saturday at Churchill Downs, who’s going to beat him?

“We saw something really great,” Baffert said. “That’s greatness right there. When he won his second race, we were in Pharoah territory. Today, I was just in awe of the performance. I knew I had something special, but Justify had to prove it today.”

Baffert also would have swept the Triple Crown in 1998 with Real Quiet, who was nosed out in the Belmont Stakes. Victory Gallop, the villain that day on Long Island, was trained by Elliott Walden, the CEO of WinStar Farm, one of Justify’s four co-owners.

“Elliott, he sent me this horse,” Baffert said. “Elliott cost me a Triple Crown. So this is his way — you are off the hook, Elliott.

”I couldn’t thank this team enough for sending me this horse. I mean, they get the credit. They bought him. They sent him to me from Kentucky to California. They took a chance.”

No, they didn’t. If you have a young thoroughbred with immense potential, you’re taking a chance if you don’t send him to Baffert.

High Five

Bob Baffert has now saddled five Kentucky Derby winners:

1997: Silver Charm

1998: Real Quiet

2002: War Emblem

2015: American Pharoah

2018: Justify

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