Bob Baffert misses the simple pleasure of watching American Pharoah breeze.
On the verge of his second Triple Crown with Justify, the Hall of Fame trainer is quick to recall his admiration for his first history-making superhorse.
“I’ve never had a horse work like him,” Baffert said. “His mechanics, his motion, just the way he did it. … This horse is starting to act like Pharoah.”
Justify isn’t American Pharoah. He wasn’t a 2-year-old champion and never seemed destined to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. American Pharoah looked bred and built for that.
Though Justify’s path to this point has differed wildly from American Pharoah’s run to the 2015 Triple Crown, Baffert sees similarities in his stride, his growth and his potential. That’s why he thinks Justify could be just the second Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“They’re two different type of horses, Pharoah and this guy,” Baffert said after Justify won the Preakness. “I think I see a lot of resemblance in these two, the way they move. … When I worked him after the Preakness, American Pharoah, when he would breathe, he was like he was a machine. And this horse is getting there.”
Justify’s recent works have brought some similarities into focus. American Pharoah didn’t have his best in the Kentucky Derby before rolling in the pouring rain in the Preakness. Three years later, Justify has rebounded from an imperfect Preakness to appear on top of his game with the mile-and-a-half Belmont coming up Saturday.
“He just keeps doing more than we keep expecting,” Justify jockey Mike Smith told The Associated Press after the Preakness. “There’s always going to be that race where he’s going to have to fight one out. I believe that was the one, so hopefully he’ll come back and run even better next time.”
Following American Pharoah’s lead and running a winning race in the Belmont is no easy task. American Pharoah is the grandson of 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker and had the pedigree to make the distance.
Justify looked gassed at the end of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness – though Smith thought he had more horse left. American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat said Monday he has been wowed by Justify and believes he’ll be the 13th Triple Crown winner.
“He’s incredibly athletic. I believe that he’s incredibly talented,” Zayat said. “I do believe that he has the ability, speed, stamina.”
After working Justify at Churchill Downs, Baffert sees no reason the horse he joked was his “backup” to McKinzie on this Triple Crown trail could make the distance at the Belmont.
“We’re quietly optimistic that we can hopefully do it again,” Baffert said. “But I’m like I’m a realist. I don’t believe it until I see it. Right now we just stay focused and get him up there and keep him happy.”
The journey of another superhorse to the Belmont makes the horse racing world plenty happy, even if there isn’t the same buzz about ending the Triple Crown drought that followed American Pharoah’s run. Justify also wasn’t primed for this kind of run – he didn’t even race as a 2-year-old.
Baffert didn’t realize until Justify’s first race that he might be training this kind of champion. As soon as he won to break his maiden, Justify looked the part to Baffert, and he’s followed that by winning the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
“What he’s done since February, you have to be a superstar to do that,” Baffert said. “He’s like Pharoah. They’re superstars.”
Jockey Victor Espinosa wants to pull the reins on that comparison. After riding American Pharoah, Espinosa has plenty of respect for Justify but won’t put the two in the same class.
“It’s not even close,” Espinosa told The AP. “(American Pharoah is) one of a kind. It’s hard to explain that because I rode many, many horses, but nothing like this guy. Probably the power and the endurance that he has that not many horses can do it. He does things so easy when other horses, they can’t just even get close to him.”
Baffert sees similarities in the horses’ strides and running styles, even as he concedes they got to this point in different ways. Baffert believes they’re both horses who can win at any length.
“Pharoah and him, what they have in common is they’re extremely fast,” Baffert said. “They both could win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They’re just good horses. They’re just superior horses.”
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