New York (AFP) – Bob Baffert hopes Justify can gallop into US thoroughbred racing’s hall of fame on Saturday when he bids to become only the 13th horse in history to complete the Triple Crown at the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.
A victory for the unbeaten three-year-old at Belmont Park would complete a remarkable season for Justify, who has already stormed to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
It would also ensure immortality for California-based Baffert, who would become only the second trainer in history to win two Triple Crowns after Jim Fitzsimmons achieved the feat in 1930 and 1935.
Baffert, who successfully guided American Pharoah to the treble in 2015, insists however he is not interested in personal glory ahead of this weekend’s race on Long Island.
“At Belmont I want to win for the horse,” Baffert told reporters. “I want Justify to be up there with those great horses.
“It’s not about (jockey) Mike Smith or Bob Baffert, it’s about Justify. Because he’s the one doing all the work. I want to see his name up there.”
If Justify is to take his place in the equine pantheon, he will have to do it the hard way. The 4-5 favourite drew the rail at Tuesday’s draw, meaning he’ll need to make a fast start out of the gate or risk being caught in traffic.
“I never like to draw the rail,” Baffert said immediately after the draw.
“But we have it, we can’t change it, and we have to deal with it.”
– ‘He’s a handful’ –
Baffert’s mood has improved since Justify arrived at Belmont Park this week, where he has been “floating” over the track in training.
“It looked like he took to the track really well,” Baffert said. “He was happy. He couldn’t look any better. I was very happy. He looks like a horse that is flourishing.”
While Justify’s mood has been buoyant, Baffert reported that the horse’s testy temperament remained intact.
“He bit me a couple of days ago while I was walking him,” Baffert said. “He’s a handful, so you have to watch him or he’ll try to push you around. He’s not a mean horse, but his patience level with people is, like, five seconds.”
Saturday’s race marks the fifth time Baffert has had a horse going for the Triple Crown. The 65-year-old said American Pharoah’s victory three years ago — which ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought — had left him feeling relaxed as he oversees the horse’s preparations.
“With Pharoah we knew he’d been trained really well, and he was a great horse. But still there was that little doubt ‘Could it be done?’,” Baffert said.
“I’m actually enjoying this one a little bit more. I just want him to run his race. If he runs his race, if he shows up, he’s good enough and he’ll get it done.”
Justify may also get a helping hand from Mother Nature, with forecasts indicating a 50 percent chance of rain, and the possibility of thunderstorms. Justify’s victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness both came in wet, mucky conditions.
The biggest challenge to Justify’s chances could come from second favourite Hofburg, priced at 9-2, while Bravazo (15-2) is also considered a threat.
Vino Rosso (9-1) and Tenfold (11-1) are also in the hunt in the 10-horse field, which includes 25-1 shot Gronkowski, part-owned by New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski.