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Unbeaten Justify set for Preakness

Mike Smith rides Justify to victory during the

Mike Smith rides Justify to victory during the Kentucky Derby May 5, 2018, in Louisville. Credit: AP / Morry Gash

He has that Secretariat look, a tall, powerful chestnut with white facial markings. Justify fits the template for thoroughbred beauty, and his pedigree (Scat Daddy out of a Ghostzapper mare) is as flashy as his appearance. That’s why it took China Horse Club and Maverick Racing only 73 seconds to snap up Hip 50 for $500,000 at Keeneland’s September 2016 yearling sale.

“He’s the most beautiful horse,” his trainer, Bob Baffert, said Sunday, the morning after undefeated Justify dominated the Kentucky Derby by 2 1⁄2 lengths. “He is a specimen. He has that presence about him. Every day at Santa Anita, people see him and say, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

Now the world knows, and only three springs since Baffert guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown in 37 years, many think he has an excellent shot at an encore. NBC-TV analyst Randy Moss called Justify a more impressive Derby winner than Pharoah, which was fact, not hyperbole.

Jockey Mike Smith never rode American Pharoah but called Justify “the best 3-year-old he’s ever been on. He’s just an amazing horse.’’ He’s taller than Pharoah and outweighs him by about 100 pounds. Baffert ranks those two with Arrogate as the best he’s trained.

“Justify is a big horse, he just covers the ground,” he said. “He looks like a battleship. He’s a supercharger.”

Justify shattered history by reversing the Curse of Apollo, who in 1882 had been the last Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. Justify is 4-for-4 by a combined 21 1⁄2 lengths since debuting Feb. 18 at Santa Anita. Even before that day, Baffert was figuring out how to get him to the Derby. After his first workout, he said, “Man, this horse can run.”

WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, co-owns Justify with China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing. Elliott Walden, WinStar’s CEO and president, had a history with Baffert, but not as allies. Walden trained Victory Gallop, who denied Baffert’s Real Quiet the 1998 Triple Crown by a nose in the Belmont. Last year, Walden, WinStar owner Kenny Troutt and China Horse Club partnered with Baffert and sent him American Anthem, a colt who wasn’t good enough to make the Derby but won two sprint stakes.

“As far as why we sent Justify to Bob, I can’t tell you that there was a great reason for that,” Walden said. “We did think Justify was one of our better horses. He was really special as a yearling. He just stood out.”

Baffert has five Derby trophies, second all-time, and tailors his operation to the classics. But he doesn’t believe in pushing horses too hard too soon, a formula for ruining them. “You have to let the horse tell you he’s ready,” he said, “and if he is, he’ll take you there.”

Baffert didn’t run either of the last two 3-year-old male champions — Arrogate (2016) and West Coast (2017) — in the Triple Crown because they weren’t ready. During the winter, he sensed Justify might be talented enough to bend the rules and challenge the Curse of Apollo.

“Like Bob said, he’s kind of like LeBron James,” Walden said. “And I got excited when Bob told me he had a plan to get him to the Derby. Now this is before he even ran. I said, ‘Now, Bob, don’t rush this horse.’ But Bob is very tuned in to his horses.”

Just 75 days after Justify’s debut, Baffert and Walden raised the coveted gold trophy in Churchill Downs’ infield. Next is the Preakness on May 19 at Pimlico, where the Derby hero will be odds-on to earn a shot at the Triple Crown at Belmont Park on June 9.

“We certainly feel he has a chance to pull off the two-week [turnaround],’’ Walton said. “What he did in the Derby was phenomenal.”

Baffert is upbeat, too, although he takes nothing for granted.

“I’m not a guy who thinks he can’t get beat,” he said. “I’m like [Bill] Belichick: ‘On to Baltimore.’ If you get ahead of yourself, you’re crazy. But if he gets on the plane, it means he’s doing real ly well. We’re ready, and if he gets racing luck, we’ll be in good shape.”

Pick Six

Bob Baffert has won the Preakness six times, tied with D. Wayne Lukas for second behind 19th century trainer R.W. Walden. Baffert’s champions in the second leg of the Triple Crown:

1997 Silver Charm*

1998 Real Quiet*

2001 Point Given

2002 War Emblem*

2010 Lookin At Lucky

2015 American Pharoah ***

*- Won Kentucky Derby

*** – Won Triple Crown

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