With all due respect to Las Vegas headliners David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, and Criss Angel, there is just one true magic man when it comes to training thoroughbreds – Bob Baffert.
Records are made to be broken, and when Justify wired the field in last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, he not only became just the second undefeated Triple Crown winner in history (Seattle Slew was the first in 1977), he also became the second Triple Crown winner for his trainer (American Pharoah in 2015 was the first) and his 16th winner of a Triple Crown race, and all-time record.
It wasn’t easy.
McKinzie looked like the leading Triple Crown candidate for Baffert after winning the Grade I Los Al Futurity last December. He was an extra game winner over Bolt d’Oro in the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita March 10, but came up with a hind end injury that put him on the shelf for the Triple Crown races.
Baffert called on Justify, who only made his career debut on Feb. 18, to take over as his leading 3-year-old. The Scat Daddy colt put the talk about the “Apollo Curse” to rest, winning the Kentucky Derby after not having raced as a 2-year-old.
Justify overcame a mild hoof bruise, a week of rain, and dense fog to come right back in Baltimore two weeks later and win the Preakness.
Only 111 days after his career debut, Justify finally caught some sunshine and a fast track in New York. Bob Baffert gave jockey Mike Smith a leg up in the paddock, and he simply told Smith, “You’ve got a full tank.” Justify broke sharply, was allowed to dictate the pace, and once he got into his long rhythmic stride, the race was history and horse racing had its 13th Triple Crown winner.
A Cynical Business
Baffert has his cynics, too. Many complain he gets as many or more of the most expensive yearlings each year along with plenty of the highest-priced juveniles from the 2-year-olds in training sales.
There is a reason he gets these opportunities – he produces results when he gets the chance. The first thoroughbred Baffert ever purchased at auction cost just $30,000. Later named Thirty Slews, all he did was win the 1992 Breeders Cup Sprint.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet came within a scant nose of winning the Triple Crown when denied by Victory Gallop in 1998. He cost just $17,000 at auction.
Baffert did not start out his thoroughbred training career with an open checkbook and a barn full of blue-blooded babies. His results led to more owners with deeper pockets and he continues to produce results.
Clocker’s Corner at Santa Anita is the gathering spot every morning and Rosie Ybarra is the long-time hostess who sells the coffee, snacks, and can tell you a story or two. She is one of the best reasons to come out and watch the morning workouts.
One morning someone stole the money out of her cash register when she wasn’t looking. The replacement money would have come out of Rosie’s pocket.
Baffert saw that Rosie was upset, and after she told him what happened, he asked her how much money was taken from the register. Baffert took the amount out of his pocket and replenished the register for Rosie.
Tim Yakteen, a trainer at Santa Anita and a long-time Baffert assistant, had a Grade I winning sprinter named Points Offthebench in 2013 who was named a finalist for Eclipse Award Champion Sprinter.
When Baffert found out Yakteen wasn’t planning to go to the Eclipse Awards in Florida in January 2014, Baffert made arrangements for Yakteen and his wife Millie to make sure they could attend the ceremonies. Points Offthebench was named champion sprinter.
Karma is king.
Did anyone else notice the placement of the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes? It is common practice at most tracks to locate the inside of the starting gate as close to the inner rail as possible.
For the Belmont Stakes, the gate was positioned far off the inside rail. The horses were loaded into the gate, and the inside couple of stalls were not used since the 10-horse field did not require all 14 available stalls in the gate.
Justify, who drew the rail, actually broke about five paths off the rail. His quick start allowed jockey Mike Smith to drop in a lane or two into a clear path. The gate placement may be common procedure over the Belmont surface at that distance, and in the Brooklyn Handicap at the same trip earlier on the Belmont Stakes card, the gate was also placed off the inner rail a bit. It sure looked odd, though.
The other puzzling factor had to do with Bob Baffert-trained Restoring Hope. After breaking a step slow, jockey Florent Geroux rushed Restoring Hope up from between horses and let him float wide entering the first turn. He appeared to come out in front of Noble Indy, who could have hooked stablemate Justify early. He then dropped to the inside to keep Bravazo pinned along the fence. Restoring Hope faded badly around the far turn and was badly beaten.
According to Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grenig, New York Gaming Commissioner steward Steve Lewandowski said Sunday there is no plan to talk to Geroux about his tactics.
Play of the Week: Santa Anita, Friday, Race 7 – So Long Sailor (4 post). I like the way this gelding improved when switched to the turf for the first time May 19. He can come right back on the raise.