Rival trainers Baffert and Lukas share a strong friendship

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Bob Baffert has spent his whole life following D. Wayne Lukas.

As a teenager at the quarter horse track in Arizona where Baffert tagged along with his dad and learned about racing, he looked up to Lukas as a legend.

Preakness Stakes: What Time, Where to Watch and More.

“I’ll never forget when he came in with his fancy trailer and man, there’s Wayne Lukas,” Baffert said. “He was huge then. He’s always set the bar.”

Baffert even asked Lukas for a job out of high school. Lukas turned Baffert down, but in the four-plus decades since, they’ve developed a friendship as deep as their combined success.

They are two of the best thoroughbred trainers in racing history and their paths are crossing again this week at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. They will go head to head in the Preakness, a race that each has won six times.

“We’ve become good friends because we have a lot in common, we had a lot of quarter horse stories and friends that we knew coming up,” Baffert said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Baffert goes into the Preakness with Kentucky Derby winner Justify , the heavy favorite to advance to the Belmont Stakes with the chance to give the 65-year-old his second Triple Crown champion in four years. A win Saturday would tie the 83-year-old Lukas’ record of 14 Triple Crown victories.

Lukas said Baffert “is going to roll right past that” mark.

“Bob is an excellent horseman,” said Lukas, who is expected to start Bravazo and Sporting Chance in the Preakness. “Not only has he got a good clientele base and gets some nice horses, but he absolutely knows what to do with them.”

Baffert’s dad got him involved in horse racing at age 11 and he considers his father his mentor – but he holds Lukas in high regard. Lukas has been an icon and rival for Baffert over the years, especially in the 1990s and 2000s when owner Bob Lewis pitted the two against each other.

Calling Lukas one of the hardest workers he has ever seen, Baffert set out to duplicate those efforts with incredible success. Lukas and Baffert just kept winning – including a combined 34 Breeders Cup’ races to go along with the Triple Crown victories – and became closer along the way.

“The one thing that you quickly find out is who you can greatly respect and respect is what really starts to bond these friendships that we develop over the years,” Lukas said. “I have developed a deep friendship and respect with him and his whole family, (his wife) Jill and everybody for the simple reason that I think he’s a very good horseman and he does a very, very good job.”

Baffert has done such a good job that Lukas considers him one of the top three or four trainers in history. If Justify wins Saturday, it would tie him with 19th-century trainer R.W. Walden for the most Preakness victories.

Leading up to Saturday’s race, Baffert will again share a barn with Lukas, who is looking for his first win on the Triple Crown trail since 2013. Despite the drought, Lukas is still the standard by which many younger trainers measure themselves.

“To me, he is still above me,” Baffert said. “He thinks he’s going to win everything.”

As much as Baffert praises Lukas for changing quarter-horse and thoroughbred racing, Lukas acknowledges Baffert’s more recent impact. The old-school Lukas looks to Baffert’s management model now and jokes, “I’m saddling horses for him and I’m sort of his assistant.”

“Our game is more than just trying to race horses,” Lukas said. “It’s managing people, managing horses, developing studs and put them out, effecting the breeding industry, causing economic impact in the sale ring and Bob has done all of that. … Bob affects every facet of the industry in some way or another.”

Baffert has come a long way from the 18-year-old who Lukas had no job for back in the day. Baffert ended the 37-year-old Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah in 2015 and continues to build his resume race by race.

“I learned it by trial and error – mostly error,” Baffert said. “And I said (to Wayne), `I’m sure glad you turned me down, because you’d be taking all the credit for this.”‘

Belmont distance, fatigue test Justify in Triple Crown bid

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BALTIMORE (AP) Justify keeps showing something new each time he races.

In the Kentucky Derby, he showed he could run in the mud in a crowded, 20-horse field. In the Preakness, he showed he could withstand the challenge of a top rival pressing him early and hold off others before the finish line – also in the mud.

For his next trick, he’ll need to show he can endure the grueling 1+-mile Belmont in New York on June 9. And it he does that, Justify will become horse racing the second Triple Crown winner in four years.

Belmont Stakes: What Time, Where To Watch and More

“If you’re a superior horse, you can do it,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “I’ve seen horses go a mile and a half and they never won again. It’s a weird, quirky race, but I don’t see why though he wouldn’t handle it.”

Had the Preakness been another tenth of a mile, a hard-charging Bravazo might’ve passed Justify and ended the Triple Crown bid on Saturday. Bravazo will go to the Belmont where Justify will have plenty of familiar challenges – and a fresh ones – standing in the way of becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.

In addition to Bravazo, Kentucky Derby horses Hofburg, Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy and Preakness horse Tenfold are among those likely to challenge Justify in what’s considered the most difficult race on the Triple Crown trail.

Bravazo is “a tough little horse, and I think his pedigree will let him run that far,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “So, we’ll take him on and see what happens.”

Justify’s run in the Kentucky Derby was convincing enough to scare off a few opposing owners and trainers from the Preakness. Given the fatigue of difficult races two weeks apart, they could see Justify as beatable at the Belmont.

Baffert, who had three near-misses with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem before American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, said Justify is built to power through the fatigue caused by running on the slop twice against high-caliber competition.

“You do hate to keep running on these wet tracks because it does take a little bit out of them,” Baffert said before Justify flew back to Louisville, Kentucky, for some rest and more training. “It can be tough. It’s not as tough on him because he’s a big horse. He can handle it. He was blowing pretty good, he got a good blow out of (the Preakness), but he wasn’t as tired as we thought he was.”

As gassed as Justify looked at the wire in the Preakness , jockey Mike Smith is convinced the undefeated colt could have run longer and picked up the pace if asked. Finishing a half-length ahead of Bravazo made it by far Justify’s closest victory of his five, but it counts just the same.

“Although he got tired (Saturday), he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said. “I certainly could have got after him a whole lot more a lot earlier and made him do a little more, as well.”

Justify has already done more than expected, a bit of a late bloomer who doesn’t have the pedigree of someone like American Pharoah. Baffert went into the year thinking McKinzie gave him a better chance and on Friday recalled thinking of Justify, “The backup horse is pretty good, too.”

Now all eyes are on Justify, who might have one major factor in his favor. His owners and Baffert have connections to Audible, My Boy Jack and Solomini, who ultimately might not be entered in the Belmont because they could threaten Justify’s chances of finishing off the Triple Crown.

Baffert is unsure whether to bring Solomini back from the Derby, though it wouldn’t make much sense to put him in Justify’s way. Baffert is sure about Justify, who looked healthy and that a bruised heel was not an issue in an impressive showing in the mud and fog at the Preakness.

“I’m feeling pretty in awe of the horse,” Baffert said. “I don’t see why not go to the Belmont, as long as he stays like this. He looks good.”

Twelve out of the last 13 times the horse who won the Derby and Preakness lost the Belmont. It’s certainly the test of a champion for a reason, and co-owner Elliott Walden is hoping for the best with three weeks of hype ahead.

“Those things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” Walden said. “If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen. And if not, it just won’t.”

History on the line at Belmont for Justify, Baffert and Smith

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BALTIMORE — Through the fog and slop, this much was clear: Justify was tired en route to winning the Preakness Stakes by a half-length. It’s not ideal to ride a nail-biter into a Triple Crown bid at the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.

Three horses finished within about a length of the chestnut colt, who went head-to-head with Derby runner-up Good Magic for the first three-quarters of a mile and then held off Bravazo and Tenfold. It’s the first time the Derby and the Preakness were both run in slop.

Belmont Stakes: What Time, Where To Watch and More

Justify’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, watched the haze on a monitor from under the stands at century-and-a-half-old Pimlico Race Course.

“Uh-oh,” he let out as jockey Mike Smith’s white silks emerged from the fog in the final quarter-mile, closely chased. Baffert leaned back in unease as Justify crossed the finish line. A pause, then a roar.

“I was just praying for the wire,” Baffert said. “He didn’t bring his A game, and I knew down the backside. He’s not bringing his A game. Let’s see how good he is. That’s what makes a great horse. You don’t bring your A game, and you still get it done.”

Baffert, Smith and their thoroughbred who raced for the first time in February next head to Belmont Park. On June 9, they will be favored to notch the 13th Triple Crown and first since another Baffert-trained colt, American Pharoah in 2015. American Pharoah ended the longest Triple Crown drought — 37 years — since the first winner in 1919.

Baffert was asked which of his horses had more impressive Derby-Preakness combinations — American Pharoah or Justify?

“Pharoah’s Preakness was off the chart, man,” the 65-year-old said of the seven-length win three years ago. “Pharoah, he’s my baby. … But this horse, and [Breeders’ Cup winner] Arrogate, they’re the same talent [as Pharoah].”

The 150th Belmont Stakes, which is the longest of the Triple Crown races at a mile and a half, is known as “the test of a champion.”

However, Justify’s bid for the Triple Crown at Belmont won’t have that drought storyline, which will be unlike any other previous Triple Crown attempt.

What made Justify’s Derby so impressive was that he became the first horse to win at Churchill without having raced as a 2-year-old since 1882. (And also running the fastest quarter-mile by a Derby winner)

He’s now raced five times in 91 days, with this latest being his toughest effort. Fitness may now be the biggest concern heading to Long Island.

Smith defended the close win. He said the track was slicker than Churchill Downs. That Justify “was slipping” early on. And that he was trying to save a little bit for the Belmont.

“Although he got tired today, he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said. “A bit of a greenness came out today, but he also got pushed pretty hard early on.

“I certainly could have gone after him a whole lot more, a lot earlier and made him do a little more as well.”

Then Smith mentioned American Pharoah’s tight win in the Derby by one length.

“Look what he went on to do,” he said. “Sometimes a race like that gets inside of them, and it’s good.”

Justify’s record, unraced as a 2-year-old and unbeaten at 3, is truly unique in Triple Crown history. It will dominate talk the next three weeks.

In contrast, Justify’s trainer-jockey combination is not only successful, but also has years of experience. These are two men with their own bobbleheads.

This Belmont can cement Baffert as the greatest Triple Crown trainer in history.

His seventh Preakness gave him 14 Triple Crown victories, matching turn-of-the-millennium rival D. Wayne Lukas atop the all-time list (Lukas trained surprise runner-up Bravazo). Baffert, 65, is now on the cusp of matching “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as the only trainers to win multiple Triple Crowns.

Baffert’s trademark, beyond the parted white hair and dark shades, is that his horses peak not at the Derby but at the Preakness or even the Belmont, NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said.

Then there’s Smith. He just became the oldest jockey to win a Preakness (age 52) — half a lifetime after his other victory at Pimlico, one year after Camden Yards opened. Part of Smith’s prize winnings for that Preakness was a red Chrysler LHS sedan, which he said that day he would donate to a disabled jockeys fund.

Big Money Mike has long been known for his ironman-like training regimen making him stronger than jockeys half his age. And more recently for winning, including more than 40 percent of his races with Baffert since the start of 2016.

Smith doesn’t have a Triple Crown, but he does have over $300 million in earnings (second all-time behind John Velazquez) and a record 26 Breeders’ Cup wins.

Seven of Smith’s nearly 5,500 wins came aboard Arrogate, which didn’t race the 2016 Triple Crown but was the 3-year-old of the year after beating 2014 Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome at the Breeders’ Cup.

This is Smith’s first Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.

“I don’t think I got that opportunity at a young age because I don’t think I was ready for it,” said Smith, who noted he was “benched” by Baffert early in his career before they reunited. “Right now, I am.”

After the Derby two weeks ago, Baffert immediately put Justify in the same sentence as Pharoah and Arrogate. They were his three horses cut from a different cloth.

Now Baffert is set for that same three-week wait as in 1997, 1998, 2002 and of course 2015 with American Pharoah.

The difference for the trainer this time? No more drought storyline. But there’s still plenty to talk about after a Preakness victory that was not so clear.

“I don’t have to see the replays of Real Quiet, Silver Charm and War Emblem,” Baffert said of his failed Triple Crown bids as he left the press conference tent in the Pimlico infield. “Those used to be killers.”