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.”

Santa Anita, Keeneland, Del Mar are Breeders’ Cup sites

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Breeders’ Cup has chosen Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar to host its World Championships from 2019-2021 respectively, continuing its recent venue rotation between California and Kentucky tracks.

Santa Anita will host the season-ending event for a record 10th time in Nov. 1-2, 2019. Kentucky-based Keeneland (Nov. 6-7, 2020) and Del Mar (Nov. 5-6, 2021) will present the races for the second time each after debuting as venues in 2015 and 2017 respectively.

Breeders’ Cup president and CEO Craig Fravel noted those tracks’ success with the event in a release on Friday and added we “look forward to building upon past triumphs.”

Louisville’s Churchill Downs will host races on Nov. 2-3. The last Breeders’ Cup held outside California and Kentucky was at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park in 2007.

Victor Espinoza in neck brace at home after accident

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza is wearing a neck brace while recovering at his San Diego home after fracturing a vertebra during a training accident at Del Mar.

Agent Brian Beach says on Twitter that the 46-year-old rider spent 11 days in the hospital and at a rehabilitation facility.

Espinoza says he initially thought he might be paralyzed after the July 22 fall at the track north of San Diego. He told ABC affiliate KGTV in San Diego that his body was numb and he could only move his right arm.

The jockey says the first time he cried was when he first started moving his right leg and by the time he got to the hospital he started moving his other leg.

Espinoza says his left arm is still numb. He will be in the neck brace for six weeks and hopes to make a full recovery.

He was exercising Bobby Abu Dhabi during morning workouts when the horse had an apparent heart attack and threw Espinoza off. Bobby Abu Dhabi died.

Espinoza rode American Pharoah to a sweep of the Triple Crown in 2015.