Baffert savors journey with another Triple Crown in reach

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NEW YORK (AP) The only thing Bob Baffert wanted to do in horse racing was win the Triple Crown.

Been there, done that in 2015 with American Pharoah.

Now, the white-haired trainer is back with another chance to saddle a colt to a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Belmont Stakes: What Time, Where To Watch and More

Justify could become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years if he wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

“I’ve won it so I’m actually going to enjoy this a little bit more,” Baffert said.

Don’t mistake Baffert’s California cool for nonchalance.

He’s on top of every little detail involving Justify: workouts, eating, the colt’s health, and how he acts around the barn.

“He always puts his horses first,” said Dale Romans, who plans to saddle Free Drop Billy in the Belmont. “He’s just got that sixth sense about him.”

Baffert arrived in Southern California from his home state of Arizona in the 1980s, switching from quarter horses to thoroughbreds.

Long before he had good horses of his own, he would pick the brains of legendary trainers like Charlie Whittingham.

“I’m not bashful about asking questions,” Baffert said. “Something that took them 20 years I can learn it in two minutes. I have all this information stored up in my brain. I know what I need to do.”

It showed in 2015.

American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he accomplished one of sports’ toughest feats. Until he did, there was talk of changing the Triple Crown format of three races in five weeks at three tracks. People said it was too hard, a reason why it hadn’t been done since Affirmed in 1978.

“I said, `Man, I hope they don’t change it,”‘ Baffert said. “I want to do it before they change it because it won’t mean anything.”

He had missed on three previous Triple tries: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), all derailed in the Belmont.

“They didn’t get it done because they were getting tired,” he said. “We’ve seen so many great horses get beat because they get tired.”

Now, it’s Justify’s turn to take a shot.

The chestnut colt wasn’t even Baffert’s top Kentucky Derby hopeful this year. That role belonged to McKinzie, who got injured in March and couldn’t run in the Santa Anita Derby. Justify won that race, instantly inserting him into Derby contention.

“The horse brought us along on his own,” Baffert said. “He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him.”

Justify won the Kentucky Derby just 77 days after making his racing debut in mid-February. He didn’t compete as a 2-year-old, partly because of a pulled muscle that delayed his progress. He won the Derby and Preakness on sloppy tracks, and rain is forecast for Saturday.

In Baltimore, Justify had what Baffert called “a scary win.” After pulling away from Good Magic in deep stretch, Justify fended off fast-closing Bravazo and Tenfold to win by a half-length.

“Only the great ones can do something like that,” Baffert said.

To complete the Triple Crown, Justify will have to run 1 + miles in the Belmont, the longest of the three races. If successful, he would join Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners.

“It makes me feel even better going into the Belmont because I know if it comes down to a fight, he’s going to give it to us,” Baffert said. “They said before he wasn’t battle-tested. He’s battle-tested. He knows he’s good. Those great horses have that attitude.”

Justify’s swagger is, well, justified. He’s 5-0 in his brief career.

“When he walks out there, he knows he’s the man,” Baffert said. “Nothing bothers him.”

Not much ruffles Baffert since he survived a heart attack in Dubai in 2012. Still quick with a quip, he takes time away from the track and relies on his crack staff to handle some of the load.

“It’s so much easier now than when I was 45,” said Baffert, who qualified for Medicare when he turned 65 in January.

His mantra is simple: Expect the worst and hope for the best.

“If you don’t have that attitude, this game will drive you crazy because you’re going to lose more than you win,” he said. “If you can win at 20 percent you’re knocking it out of the park.”

Baffert could join James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers of two Triple Crown winners. Fitzsimmons oversaw Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935, a decade that saw three horses sweep the Triple Crown.

Although he’s never been what he calls “a goal guy,” he wanted to win the Triple Crown while his parents were alive. It didn’t happen. His mother, Ellie, died in 2011; his father, Bill, the next year.

The loss left Baffert all the more emotional when American Pharoah made his triumphant sweep.

“I figured they were up there helping me out,” he said. “I still think they’re helping me out.”

Joining him in New York this time will be his four grown children from his first marriage and 13-year-old son Bode with wife Jill in tow. None of his kids has any interest in the sport beyond attending the biggest races.

“I would never encourage it,” Jill Baffert said. “It’s a tough way to make a living, especially if you don’t have the passion for it.”

Bode, who aspires to be a meteorologist, provides race day forecasting for his dad using live Doppler radar on his cellphone.

“He loves the storms and lightning,” said Jill Baffert, noting their son correctly provided early warning of the monsoon that hit Pimlico just before the 2015 Preakness.

Bob Baffert is prepared for sunshine or dreariness after the Belmont, knowing he’s saddled good horses three other times that didn’t get it done.

“The journey is the best part of the whole thing,” he said.

What: 150th Belmont Stakes
When: June 9, 2018
Post time: 6:37 p.m ET
Where to watch: NBC, NBC Sports app

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”