Sometime before 7 p.m. on Saturday, 10 horses will explode out of the Belmont starting gate and churn through the sweeping mile-and-a-half track. Only one will hit the wire first. Trainer Bob Baffert knows something about that, plenty to be exact.
Three years ago, Baffert saddled American Pharoah to a Belmont Stakes win and horse racing’s first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1979. Now, Baffert gets another shot with the undefeated Justify, the winner of 2018’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and the morning line’s 4-5 favorite.
Will history repeat itself? Maybe. As Baffert told The Daily Beast, Justify has already shown himself to be a superior 3-year-old, one who’s doing well now after coming out of the Preakness in good shape. On the downside, Justify drew the rail—the one place horses and trainers don’t like to be.
Before Wednesday’s post-position draw at Citi Field, Baffert said that he “never likes to talk about position.” After the draw Baffert confirmed what folks were already thinking: “Well, I never do like to draw the rail but my horses seem to live in it.”
Still, the race will be about more than Justify’s gate. “You can have a great hole, but if you don’t leave there, you’re still going to be in trouble,” Baffert said, adding “we have it, we can’t change it, so we’re just—you just deal with it.
Deal with it, indeed, and Baffert knows of what he speaks. Silver Charm, a Baffert-trained colt won the Derby and Preakness, only to lose his bid for immortality and the Triple Crown in the closing strides of the 1997 Belmont. And the winner, Touch Gold? He came out on top after breaking slowly from “one” post, the same as Justify’s.
To be sure, Justify has already beaten the odds by winning the Derby. From 1882 onward, no horse had won the Run for the Roses that had not already started its career at the age of two. Since 1937, a total of 61 such horses had entered the Derby, but all had come up short on the First Saturday in May—until Justify. Right now, Justify is five-for-five on the track.
Still, the Belmont doesn’t look like a cakewalk for Justify. For starters, there’s history. Of the 36 horses to win both the Derby and Preakness, only 12 have emerged victorious in the Belmont.
Then there is the the strain of it all, and Justify’s performance in the Preakness. Three grueling races in five short weeks exact a price. Secretariat was never the same after his win in the 1973 Belmont. That day, Big Red, as he was nicknamed, finished in a world record time of 2 minutes, 24 seconds, 31 lengths ahead of the field, and yet something was also lost.
As for the Preakness, Justify’s final time of 1:55.93 was respectable, especially over a sloppy race track. Still, Justify was never convincingly staved off his competition. Two other horses, Bravazo and Tenfold finished within a length of the leader after chasing him for a mile-and-three-sixteenths—and the Belmont is five-sixteenths of a mile longer.
So does that mean another horse has a shot? Yes. But having a shot is not the same thing has pulling off the upset.
Trainer D. Wayne Lucas, whose horse Bravazo will again challenge Justify, sounded realistic about finally coming out on top. Lucas acknowledged to The Daily Beast that he was uncertain about Bravazo’s chances, saying of Justify, “he beat us twice.” Beyond that, Lucas—who has won the Derby four times, the Preakness six times, and the Belmont four times—noted the difficulty in controlling the tempo of a race, and Justify’s ken for being where he needed to be.
On Thursday, Justify galloped a mile-and-three-eighths around the Belmont oval. Baffert was pleased, saying that his horse looked like he had “just floated over this track.”
As for the run that counts, “we know it’s going to be tough,” Baffert says. “Right now we’re just going to enjoy the moment and hope that—if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.” By 7 p.m. Saturday we’ll know if it’s meant to be.