(Justify — caught by the lens of the fabulous equine photographer Holly M. Smith)
Finally, the sun did shine on this old Kentucky Home — Churchill Downs — Sunday morning, the day after the wettest Kentucky Derby Day in the 144 history of the historic race. And, as the steamy fog began to lift, the fickle orb in the sky also revealed that the sun continues to shine on the affable Bob Baffert — the best trainer in the Thoroughbred world.
While the media circle grew and circled in on the Baffert Barn on the backside of Churchill Downs, the white-haired trainer allowed his latest greatest — the fabulous Justify — come out of his barn tour to say hello and bask in the glow of the welcomed warmth and the attention bestowed only on a Kentucky Derby winner.
The chestnut colt stood at attention, looking none the less for wear just a few hours after he splashed to an impressive victory in the 144th Kentucky Derby and become the first horse to capture the “Run for the Roses” in 134 years that didn’t run a single time as a 2-yar-old.
The last horse to accomplish that feat was the famed Apollo, who won the Derby in 1882 by defeating the 4-5 favorite Runnymede. Since that date, though, no horse had ever duplicated that feat until Saturday, when Justify and Magnum Moon both tried to break the supposed “Apollo Curse.”
Justify did it. Magnum Moon ran 19th out of 20.
“I was fretting all week trying to get this big horse there. It’s like having LeBron James (of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ fame). You better win a championship with him,” said Baffert.
On Saturday, Baffert and Justify did exactly that.
“He just put himself up there with the greats,” said Baffert, who now has won the Kentucky Derby five times. He trails only the legendary Ben Jones in the race for the most Derby victories ever. Jones won the world’s greatest horse race six times. “It takes a horse like American Pharaoh. We knew he was capable. He showed me that — we were talking about it — but i didn’t want to say it. I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it.”
And, on Saturday, both Baffert and Justify did exactly that.
Now, it is on to the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown — the Preakness Stakes at historic Pimlico in Baltimore, Md. To date, Baffert has sent four Derby winners on to the Preakness. To date, he has never lost the Preakness with a Derby winner. He won the Preakness with all the previous Derby winners — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, and the great American Pharoah.
So, the pressure continues. So, the pressure builds.
“You’d better get used to this,” Baffert told the horse on Sunday morning — as reported by Jonathan Lintner, editor for www.HorseRacingNation. “This is your new life.”
Vintner went on to report:
“I just got a call from the Preakness for the invitation — the official invitation,” said Baffert. “I didn’t tell them I’d think about it. If he’s good — if he gets on that plane — we’ll come. We’ll take it day by day here (Churchill Downs).”
According to Baffert, his top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, will oversee the colt’s preparations over the next two weeks in Louisville, before Justify ships to Pimlico the week of the race — scheduled for May 15.
Baffert won the Triple Crown just four years ago with the great American Pharoah. Now, the comparisons are already beginning to pop.
But Baffert waved off the urge to compare. “We will take it one race at a time,” he said, falling into one of sport’s most oft-used cliches.
Yet, you know that the thought as to be circling his mind about as fast as his young, inexperience colt circles racetracks.