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.

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“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.”

Injured jockey Victor Espinoza plans return to riding

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza is planning a comeback after fracturing a vertebra in his neck during a training accident at Del Mar.

That’s according to his agent Brian Beach, who says Thursday that Espinoza is expected to see a doctor the first week in October to find out how he is progressing in his recovery from the July 22 accident.

Beach says Espinoza has remained in San Diego, where he goes to rehab sessions three days a week and goes walking three times a day. The 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey only wears a neck brace when he rides in a car. He isn’t allowed to drive himself yet.

Beach says Espinoza has a “bright outlook” but is frustrated at times because he has been nearly injury-free his entire career and never faced anything this serious.

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

Churchill Downs’ next project to offer rooftop views of Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs is adding rooftop views to its lineup of high-dollar seating for the Kentucky Derby.

The track’s parent company said Friday that a new rooftop garden offering prime spots overlooking the start of America’s most famous horse race will be ready in time for next year’s Derby in early May.

The rooftop lounge, to be situated atop the Starting Gate Suites on the north end of the famed track, will provide covered reserved seating for more than 250 fans and standing-room-only access for about 250 more ticketholders, Churchill Downs Inc. said.

The new space will feature upscale bars and food in a “cozy” and “party-like atmosphere,” Churchill said.

“Rooftop bars are a hot trend in the hospitality industry, and the addition of this sensational new space … will be a great benefit to our facility and deliver another unique guest experience at Churchill Downs,” said Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack.

Churchill did not disclose Derby ticket prices for the addition, saying ticketing information will be available later this year.

The lounge will include a tiered balcony overlooking the section of track where Derby horses break from the starting gate and, after looping the track, jockey for position at the top of the homestretch on their way to the finish. It also will offer panoramic views of Louisville, the track said.

Construction will begin after Churchill hosts the Breeders’ Cup in early November.

The $5 million rooftop project is the latest in a series of upgrades at the track in the past two decades, meant to maximize revenue from the Derby and Kentucky Oaks, a race for 3-year-old fillies the day before the Derby. The venerable track seems to burst at the seams on Derby Day, when about 160,000 people pack into the track and infield.

Many of the additions have been geared toward well-heeled racing fans.

The Starting Gate Suites debuted for this year’s Derby. The $37 million project provided more than 1,800 new seats through the addition of 32 luxury seats and third-floor grandstand seats. Other projects included renovating the clubhouse and grandstand, putting in permanent lights, creating a new VIP section known as The Mansion and installing of a gigantic video board.