Opinion: Justify Is “The Pressbox’s” Clear Cut #1 Pick for Belmont Stakes as Triple Crown Looms

(Justify goes about his business at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Belmont Stakes / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

After Justify completed his impressive workout over the Churchill Downs racing strip on Tuesday, Bob Baffert entertained questions from media types, and entertained, in general, as well. But when asked about this star pupil, and latest Triple Crown hopeful, Baffert turned about as serious as his colt becomes on race day.

“I wish (the Belmont Stakes) was this week,” he said.

That sentence is short. But in five little words it says a lot.

About both the trainer and the horse.

It says, in short, the horse and trainer are both sitting on ready. It says, in short, the horse and trainer are both game. It says, in short, that both the horse and trainer are fit, able, and sitting on go.

Justify — who notched the first two jewels of this year’s Triple Crown firmly into his head band by winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes over and through muddy, wet, and splashy conditions — is now just 11/2 miles away from winning the Belmont Stakes and becoming Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner in the last four years.

He won that elusive title for the first time when American Pharoah was able to sweep the demanding series of Stakes events for 3-year-olds in 2015.

And, for most of the Spring, Baffert has been both singing the praises of Justify — a glorious redheaded son of the late, great Scat Daddy — and preaching that his latest star is a lot like his last one, in so many ways.

Back before anyone would truly believe him, Baffert said that Justify was special — just like American Pharoah — and could win the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that he didn’t race as a 2-year-old and that no horse had been able to do that in over 134 years.

Baffert was right.

Back before anyone would truly hear the words, Baffert said that Justify was fast, durable, and strong — just like American Pharoah — and would bounce back full of run in just two weeks time, and could win the Preakness Stakes, too, no matter who showed up at Pimlico to give him a try. Thus, he would become the first horse to ever win the Derby and the Preakness not having raced a single time as a 2-year-old.

Baffert, of course, was right, again.

Now, when the social media critics are claiming that they have found new holes in Justify’s game and vow that they can beat him in the long, grinding, endurance test of what is the Belmont Stakes, Baffert’s words and faith have never wavered.

On Tuesday, after the colt’s brilliant work that was nearly two seconds faster than the move turned in by American Pharoah in 2015 leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Baffert stood calmly and made the same remarks and comparison.

“I think this horse (Justify) is, in many ways, just like American Pharoah,” he said, point blank for the 100th time (or was it 1,000?). “They are both very special. Very special.”

Only time will tell if Baffert is right a third time. Only time will tell if Baffert will become the first trainer to win two Triples Crowns since Jim Fitzsimmons accomplished the feat in 1930 with Gallant Fox, and again in 1935 with Omaha. Only time will tell if Baffert is right and Justify will become only the 13th horse since the beginning of the series to capture the incredibly difficult Triple Crown.

But it won’t take me much time to tell you that I believe.

I believe in Baffert — whom has become one of the greatest trainers of horses in the history of the game itself.

I believe in Mike Smith, the wonderful, heady rider who has both the pleasure and the pressure of sitting on the back of one of the world’s most talented horses. What LeBron James may be to the NBA, Mike Smith certainly may be to race riding. The greatest of all time.

I believe in Justify — whom I have seen twice now since his victory in the Preakness. And, he looks and acts magnificent. More importantly, he is moving gracefully, effortlessly, beautifully.

And, I believe we may be watching history unfold right in front of our very eyes. Let’s enjoy it all.

RankHorseSireTrainerJockeyLast StartComment
1JustifyScat DaddyBob BaffertMike Smith1st in Preakness StakesDespite the slop, fog, and the immense challenge from get to go from the 2YO Champ, he won — AGAIN
2TenfoldCurlinSteve AsmussenRicaredo Santana, Jr. (?)3rd in Preakness StakesHuge move at the top of the stretch that gave the appearance of sincerity and danger/Improve?
3Blended CitizenProud CitizenDoug O’NeillKyle Frey1st in G3 Peter Pan StakesDidn’t get in the KY Derby, but won the Peter Pan impressively/Rapidly improving colt since moved to dirt
4Noble IndyTake Charge IndyTodd PletcherJavier Castellano (?)17th in KY DerbyRushed into contention from wide PP/Raced near suicide pace 5w and faltered/Much better than that race
5BravazoAwesome AgainD. Wayne LukasLuis Saez2nd in Preakness StakesRan huge late and closed ground, but the margin was deceiving/HOF rider on Justify had wrapped up
6HofburgTapitBill MottIrad Ortiz, Jr7th in KY Derby“Wise Guy” horse in both KY Derby & now Belmont/More hype than substance? A real candidate for that title
7Restoring HopeGiant’s CausewayBob BaffertFlorent Geroux (?)12th in G3 Pat Day MileHated the slop he found on Derby Day/Never worse than 3 before that/”Rabbit” is more talented than some in here
8Free Drop BillyUnion RagsDale RomansRobby Albarado (?)16th in KY DerbySlow start made a rail trip necessary/Never seriously involved in Derby/Has not been the same since Breeders’ Futurity
9GronkowskiLonhroChad BrownJose Ortiz1st in 32red Burradon StakesMissed the KY Derby after spiking a fever/Since shifted to the barn of Chad Brown/Nice work sparks interest
10Vino RossoCurlinTodd PletcherJohn Velazquez9th in KY DerbyGot the blinkers for the first time when winning soft Wood Memorial/Never a serious contender in Derby

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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