NEW YORK – The only thing Bob Baffert wanted to do in horse racing was win the Triple Crown.
Been there, done that in 2015 with American Pharoah.
Now, the white-haired trainer is back with another chance to saddle a colt to a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Justify could become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years if he wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
“I’ve won it so I’m actually going to enjoy this a little bit more,” Baffert said.
Don’t mistake Baffert’s California cool for nonchalance.
He’s on top of every little detail involving Justify: workouts, eating, the colt’s health, and how he acts around the barn.
“He always puts his horses first,” said Dale Romans, who plans to saddle Free Drop Billy in the Belmont. “He’s just got that sixth sense about him.”
Baffert arrived in Southern California from his home state of Arizona in the 1980s, switching from quarter horses to thoroughbreds.
Long before he had good horses of his own, he would pick the brains of legendary trainers like Charlie Whittingham.
“I’m not bashful about asking questions,” Baffert said. “Something that took them 20 years I can learn it in two minutes. I have all this information stored up in my brain. I know what I need to do.”
It showed in 2015.
American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he accomplished one of sports’ toughest feats. Until he did, there was talk of changing the Triple Crown format of three races in five weeks at three tracks. People said it was too hard, a reason why it hadn’t been done since Affirmed in 1978.
“I said, ‘Man, I hope they don’t change it,’” Baffert said. “I want to do it before they change it because it won’t mean anything.”
He had missed on three previous Triple tries: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), all derailed in the Belmont.
“They didn’t get it done because they were getting tired,” he said. “We’ve seen so many great horses get beat because they get tired.”
Now, it’s Justify’s turn to take a shot.
The chestnut colt wasn’t even Baffert’s top Kentucky Derby hopeful this year. That role belonged to McKinzie, who got injured in March and couldn’t run in the Santa Anita Derby. Justify won that race, instantly inserting him into Derby contention.
“The horse brought us along on his own,” Baffert said. “He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him.”
Justify won the Kentucky Derby just 77 days after making his racing debut in mid-February. He didn’t compete as a 2-year-old, partly because of a pulled muscle that delayed his progress. He won the Derby and Preakness on sloppy tracks, and rain is forecast for Saturday.
In Baltimore, Justify had what Baffert called “a scary win.” After pulling away from Good Magic in deep stretch, Justify fended off fast-closing Bravazo and Tenfold to win by a half-length.
“Only the great ones can do something like that,” Baffert said.
To complete the Triple Crown, Justify will have to run 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont, the longest of the three races. If successful, he would join Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners.
“It makes me feel even better going into the Belmont because I know if it comes down to a fight, he’s going to give it to us,” Baffert said. “They said before he wasn’t battle-tested. He’s battle-tested. He knows he’s good. Those great horses have that attitude.”
Justify’s swagger is, well, justified. He’s 5-0 in his brief career.
“When he walks out there, he knows he’s the man,” Baffert said. “Nothing bothers him.”
Not much ruffles Baffert since he survived a heart attack in Dubai in 2012. Still quick with a quip, he takes time away from the track and relies on his crack staff to handle some of the load.
“It’s so much easier now than when I was 45,” said Baffert, who qualified for Medicare when he turned 65 in January.
His mantra is simple: Expect the worst and hope for the best.
“If you don’t have that attitude, this game will drive you crazy because you’re going to lose more than you win,” he said. “If you can win at 20 percent you’re knocking it out of the park.”
Baffert could join James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers of two Triple Crown winners. Fitzsimmons oversaw Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935, a decade that saw three horses sweep the Triple Crown.
Although he’s never been what he calls “a goal guy,” he wanted to win the Triple Crown while his parents were alive. It didn’t happen. His mother, Ellie, died in 2011; his father, Bill, the next year.
The loss left Baffert all the more emotional when American Pharoah made his triumphant sweep.
“I figured they were up there helping me out,” he said. “I still think they’re helping me out.”
Joining him in New York this time will be his four grown children from his first marriage and 13-year-old son Bode with wife Jill in tow. None of his kids has any interest in the sport beyond attending the biggest races.
“I would never encourage it,” Jill Baffert said. “It’s a tough way to make a living, especially if you don’t have the passion for it.”
Bode, who aspires to be a meteorologist, provides race day forecasting for his dad using live Doppler radar on his cellphone.
“He loves the storms and lightning,” said Jill Baffert, noting their son correctly provided early warning of the monsoon that hit Pimlico just before the 2015 Preakness.
Bob Baffert is prepared for sunshine or dreariness after the Belmont, knowing he’s saddled good horses three other times that didn’t get it done.
“The journey is the best part of the whole thing,” he said.
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