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.”

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”