BY JOE CLANCY
Here we go again. Just a few years removed from the 37-year drought-ending sweep by American Pharoah in 2015, Thoroughbred racing reaches another peak on June 9 as Justify tries to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown by capturing the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
And the PRESS of Southeast Queens —partnering with the team at The Saratoga Special and thisishorseracing.com—will be there for the ride. The newspaper’s June 7 to June 13 edition will feature a special Belmont Stakes Preview Guide for the race’s 150th running, complete with insight into the race’s history, a detailed look at how Justify got to this point and all sorts of news, features and other pieces you won’t want to miss. The preview guide will be available online, as part of the regular print edition and as a stand-alone publication around the area.
The team behind Justify should be familiar to even casual racing fans. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert tries to become the second person to train two horses to Triple Crown sweeps. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons turned the trick with Gallant Fox and Omaha in 1930 and 1935, respectively, but it hasn’t been done since. Baffert, of course, won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015. He also fell just short with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. All three won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but came up short (Real Quiet by a desperate nose) in the Belmont Stakes.
Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and a team of owners (WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, SF Racing, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing) are on the verge of history. Justify has not lost in five starts, with a maiden win at Santa Anita in February, an allowance score at that same California track in March, and then the Santa Anita Derby April 7, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs May 5 and the Preakness at Pimlico two weeks later. At every stage, the Kentucky-bred has dazzled—even on sloppy tracks in the Derby and Preakness.
“He’s a superior horse,” Baffert said after the Preakness. “It takes a really good horse. We’ve seen horses win the first two, but what he’s done in just five starts is incredible. That takes like an American Pharoah talent to do it.”
In the Derby, Justify drafted behind pacesetter Promises Fulfilled early and powered through the mud late to score by 2 1/2 lengths over Good Magic in a 20-horse battle royal. In the Preakness, the weatherman brought more of the mud—and the opponents took the fight to the favorite. Battling a game Good Magic early, Justify again handled the slop and had enough in the stretch to deny Bravazo’s late run by a half-length. Tenfold also rallied late to finish a neck back in third, with Good Magic another neck behind in fourth.
“He had to work a little bit today,” Smith said of the Preakness. “Good Magic, he really went and was pushing me hard. Luckily I was able to hold everyone else off.”
The 52-year-old Hall of Fame jockey was a regular at Belmont Park in the 1990s and has won two Belmont Stakes (with Palace Malice in 2013 and Drosselmeyer in 2010). While piling up more than 5,460 wins, he’s ridden the likes of Azeri, Lure, Coronado’s Quest, Holy Bull, Zenyatta, Songbird and Arrogate. A Triple Crown sweep would be another magical moment in a career filled with them.
“It’s incredible,” he said of the prospects. “I don’t think I was ready for it when I was young. I couldn’t have handled it. The pressure, I might have run off. Who knows? I’m older and content, very at peace and humbled by the moments. And, oh yeah, I ride better now.”
The Belmont field won’t be finalized until the post-position draw on Tuesday, June 5, but the probable field includes Justify, Bravazo, Tenfold, Hofburg, Free Drop Billy, Gronkowski, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy.