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.”

Baffert sweeps Grade 1 two-year-old races at Los Alamitos

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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert swept the CashCall Futurity and Starlet for 2-year-olds, winning the Grade 1 races for the second straight year at Los Alamitos.

Improbable won the $300,345 Futurity by five lengths as the 1-5 favorite and 3-2 favorite Chasing Yesterday won the $300,345 Starlet by a head on Saturday. Drayden Van Dyke became the second jockey to win both races in the same year.

Baffert earned his fifth straight victory in the Futurity and his 11th overall, having won it six times at old Hollywood Park.

Improbable ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.18 and paid $2.40 to win. The colt’s ownership includes most of the group that owned Triple Crown winner Justify.

In the Starlet, Chasing Yesterday ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.59 and paid $5 to win. She is a half-sister to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert.

Victor Espinoza aims for January comeback

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza is aiming to return to riding in January, six months after he was seriously injured in a training accident.

The 46-year-old rider says he had an MRI recently and “it came out perfect.” Espinoza says he doesn’t need surgery and his spinal cord has healed “perfectly,” which was his main concern.

He fractured a vertebra in his neck at Del Mar last July when the horse he was exercising fell.

Espinoza was back at Del Mar on Saturday for the first time since the accident. He presented the trophy to the winning connections in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He has been recuperating at his Del Mar home.

Espinoza says he hopes to return sometime in January at Santa Anita. The track opens its winter meet on Dec. 26.

He rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown sweep in 2015.