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.

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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.”

NBC presents 22 hours of daily live coverage of Royal Ascot

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STAMFORD, Conn. – June 14, 2018 – NBC Sports presents daily live coverage of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England  – one of the most prestigious horse racing meets in the world – including the first-ever NBC broadcast of the race on Saturday, June 23, at 9 a.m. ET. Live coverage of the event begins Tuesday, June 19, at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN, with daily telecasts of the full five-day Royal meeting on NBCSN through Friday, June 22. In total, NBC Sports Group will present 22 hours of coverage over the five days.

Royal Ascot is one of the world’s most valuable horse racing events, attracting many of the world’s finest racehorses.  The event features 30 races, including eight at the world championship “Group One” level. Highlighting the American contingent is trainer Wesley Ward, who has won nine races at Royal Ascot over the years. He is scheduled to bring 10 horses to Ascot this year, highlighted by Lady Aurelia, who is looking to win her third straight race at The Royal Meeting. She races in the King’s Stand on Tuesday during NBCSN’s first day of coverage.

The Royal Meeting is the center of the British social season and a pivotal week in the calendar of the Royal Family, who arrive every day by the world famous “Royal Procession” – with the first carriage carrying The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

NBC News’ Dylan Dreyer makes her Royal Ascot debut on Friday and Saturday, alongside Nick Luck, who will host coverage for all five days. On Friday morning, June 22, Dreyer will report live from Berkshire on TODAY.

Following is NBC Sports’ schedule for the Royal Ascot next week:

Date Time (ET) Show Network
Tues., June 19 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Wed., June 20 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Thurs., June 21 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Fri., June 22 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Sat., June 23 9 a.m. Royal Ascot NBC

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and connected TVs – will stream coverage of the Royal Meeting. The NBC Sports app will stream coverage via “TV Everywhere,” giving consumers additional value to their subscription service, and making high-quality content available to MVPD customers both in and out of the home and on multiple platforms. Powered by Playmaker Media, the NBC Sports app is available on Apple iOS, Android and select Samsung devices, as well as on Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Win10, and Xbox.

NBC SPORTS GROUP AND HORSE RACING: In addition to the Royal Ascot, NBC Sports Group is the exclusive home to the most important and prestigious events in horse racing, including the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. Also in 2018, NBC Sports Group televised the world’s richest horse race (the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational) and the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and in June presented the Epsom Derby. NBC has been the exclusive home of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes since 2001, and the Belmont Stakes since 2011, when NBC Sports Group reassembled the Triple Crown.

Owners: Triple Crown winner Justify will race again

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NEW YORK (AP) Triple Crown winner Justify will get a well-deserved break and then race again this year, although no date or location has been targeted yet after the colt came out of his Belmont Stakes victory in good condition.

Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm said Sunday the multi-owner group that controls Justify wants to share the horse with the public by racing him. A plan will be formulated once the chestnut colt recovers from a compressed schedule that saw him win six races over 111 days since his debut on Feb. 18.

Justify is set to return to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday. On June 17, the colt will travel to trainer Bob Baffert’s base in Southern California to await his next move.

Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years with a victory Saturday in the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.