Justify’s trial by rain, mud and fog was over, and on Sunday morning, the sun finally beamed over Pimlico Race Course and the new Triple Crown aspirant.
He’d endured the hardest fight of his career in winning the Preakness the previous evening, but he looked none the worse for it as he boarded a van to the airport just after 8:30 a.m. Justify returned to Churchill Downs, where he’ll rest for a week before resuming training for the June 9 Belmont Stakes.
“He is good,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “For him, what he’s done, fifth race, it’s pretty incredible really. I’m in awe of the horse.”
Justify displayed none of the foot discomfort that spurred widespread concern the morning after the Kentucky Derby. He was bright-eyed and as usual, had eaten well.
Baffert broke a 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah in 2015 and if he were to win another with Justify, he would become only the second trainer, after James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, to claim two. He could also break a tie with his friend, D. Wayne Lukas, for the most Triple Crown race victories.
“Nobody’s gonna ever touch that. That’s ridiculous,” he recalled thinking when he was a young trainer, staring up at Lukas’ record.
The racing world will perk up to embrace its newest star, but it’s unclear whether Justify will garner as much mainstream attention as American Pharoah. His story lacks the pent-up energy that had built for almost four decades as fans awaited a successor to Affirmed in the Triple Crown firmament.
The feat also seems more in reach for a trainer who’s already pulled it off.
“I think it’s a little bit different,” Baffert said. “Before, we were always thinking we’re going to go there, and it’s going to be so difficult. Something always goes wrong. But I just feel with this horse, he’s so talented that something could go wrong and he’ll still win.”
Justify looked tired at the end of his fifth win in 90 days, which will lead many to assume he’s vulnerable going into the unique 1½-mile test at Belmont.
Baffert said that’s not necessarily the case. Even the best horses struggle to maintain their peak form race after race. Justify was not on his “A” game in the Preakness, and he was pushed by a rugged challenge from Derby runner-up Good Magic. It’s a testament to his talent that he won anyway.
“I think his next race will be really big,” Baffert said. “You can’t just come bring it all the time. This will set him up for the next one.”
Looking ahead to Belmont, jockey Mike Smith said that if he can settle Justify into a comfortable rhythm, the big chestnut should handle the 1½ miles without difficulty.
Victor Espinoza did it aboard American Pharoah in 2015, and he never faltered.
The early list of Belmont challengers includes Preakness runner-up Bravazo and third-place finisher Tenfold, along with Derby horses such as Vino Rosso, Hofburg and Free Drop Billy.
The most intriguing story will center on third-place Derby finisher Audible, who ran as well as any horse down the stretch at Churchill Downs. Trainer Todd Pletcher has long succeeded bringing rested challengers to the Belmont Stakes, which he’s won three times. And that was the presumed path for Audible.
But Audible is owned by the same group that owns Justify. So it’s an open question whether they’ll throw such a formidable challenger at their potential Triple Crown winner.
Elliott Walden, president and CEO of both horses’ co-owner WinStar Farm, said the partnership will probably make a decision on Audible late this week.
“I’m noncommittal both ways,” he said Saturday night.
Baffert said he’s not thinking about potential challengers or about lessons he might have learned from American Pharoah or his previous three Triple Crown challengers who tried and failed.
“I think it’s a matter of the horse,” he said. “They all ran well, except War Emblem, who stumbled really badly. But all these horses are different. I think this guy’s just a superior horse.”