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Justify ready to challenge for Triple Crown

Triple Crown hopeful Justify gets a bath at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on Friday. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)
Triple Crown hopeful Justify gets a bath at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., on Friday. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)
By John Cherwa Los Angeles Times

ELMONT, N.Y. – The journey started in early February when trainer Bob Baffert walked into the office of Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle to inquire whether there would be enough entrants for an upcoming maiden race.

“I have a horse in there that can win the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert told Hammerle.

Who would have thought Baffert was underselling that horse?

This afternoon at Belmont Park, Justify looks to join the highest stratum of horse racing immortality by becoming the 13th thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.

Before the Kentucky Derby three years ago, some believed the Triple Crown was a relic of a bygone time, that changes in the industry made winning the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a five-week span no longer possible. It had been 37 years since Affirmed completed the feat.

Then came American Pharoah.

Justify, if he wins today, will forever be linked to American Pharoah, who also was trained by Baffert. If he loses, he will join Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) as Baffert-trained horses that came up one victory short.

Justify could join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown. He also could become the first horse to accomplish that feat without having raced as a 2-year-old. And he will have run the fewest races, six.

All signs point to his being able to win, as they had for the 13 other horses who failed in the third jewel after Affirmed won in 1978.

When exercise rider Humberto Gomez finished galloping Justify around the track Friday morning, he stopped to yell at Baffert, “He loves this track.” He repeated it for everyone listening.

Justify has looked good in his two practice trips around the giant 1 1/2-mile track.

“He’s just moving over the track really well,” Baffert said Friday. “This is what a trainer hopes to see the day before a horse runs. Coming off the track, he was just full of himself. He seems like he’s still improving. I know he’s going to show up and run his race.

”But he still has to get around there and he has to break well, and he needs racing luck, which is out of our control. I couldn’t be happier with him. He looks no different than American Pharoah did coming in here.”

There are 10 horses entered in the race, and only Justify and Bravazo will have run in all three Triple Crown races. Bravazo finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness.

Restoring Hope, who runs for Baffert, and Blended Citizen, trained by Doug O’Neill, are running their first Triple Crown race.

The colt that is considered most likely to beat Justify is Hofburg, who is the second choice – 9-2 to Justify’s 4-5. Hofburg had a troubled race in Louisville and has had five weeks to recover.

”It was not a good trip for him,“ trainer Bill Mott said. ”He had to steady and tap on the breaks a couple times. When he found a path, the race was over.”

Even Mott agrees, though, that it’s Justify’s race to lose.

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