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

Preakness winner War of Will likely to run in Belmont

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BALTIMORE (AP) Owner Gary Barber called trainer Mark Casse for the fourth time in 11 hours since War of Will won the Preakness.

Only this time, Casse was in the middle of holding court with reporters the morning after his first Triple Crown victory.

“All’s good and we’re going to the Belmont?” Casse said to Barber with a Cheshire cat grin. “I was kidding. I was making that up.”

Well, not totally.

Assuming all goes well in the coming weeks, Casse said “there’s an extremely good shot” War of Will goes to the Belmont Stakes on June 8 in New York. If he wins, he’d be the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to fall short in the Kentucky Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont and would be the front-runner for 3-year-old horse of the year.

“It’s the third leg of the Triple Crown, who doesn’t want to win it?” Casse said Sunday. “There are only three Triple Crown races, and they’re pretty important. I think if you can do it you should do it. …

“That’s what we do. We run.”

Those watching the Preakness saw a horse run the entire race and then some after throwing off his jockey out of the starting gate, a scene that – once it was clear rider John Velazquez was OK – served as a reminder of how much thoroughbreds love to run. Bodexpress provided a memorable spectacle as War of Will fulfilled his potential at Pimlico.

The Belmont is another substantial test for the tough and talented War of Will because it’s a third race in six weeks and is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles.

There won’t be a Kentucky Derby rematch with Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interfering with War of Will, or Country House, who was placed first and since been sidelined by illness. And two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert said he probably won’t take Improbable to the Belmont after finishing out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as the favorite.

But War of Will could have to contend with Derby returners Tacitus, Master Fencer and perhaps Baffert’s Game Winner, along with Preakness surprise second-place finisher Everfast, third-place runner Owendale and ninth-place Signalman. Trainer Bill Mott ruled out Country House but is planning to take Tacitus to the Belmont and figures the gray colt will have no problem in a significantly longer race.

“He should handle it fine,” Mott said by phone Saturday. “My guess was that he’d handle the Derby distance fine, which he did. I was pleased. I think it goes the same for the Belmont. I think it’s within his grasp.”

If the Preakness had more than an extra quarter-mile, closers Everfast and Owendale might’ve put a scare into War of Will on Saturday. Everfast was a late entry by trainer Dale Romans three days before the race and opened at 50-1 but showed he might be a good long-distance runner.

“We almost had it,” Everfast jockey Joel Rosario said. “He ran great. We have a great shot at the Belmont.”

Tacitus, Everfast and Owendale will be strong challengers, but this should be War of Will’s Belmont to lose. Had he not endured such a rough trip in and been interfered with at Churchill Downs on May 4, there could be another wave of Triple Crown talk going on right now about a third winner in five years.

But Casse isn’t thinking about that, still grateful War of Will avoided going down in the Derby and was able to rebound and run well in the Preakness. He’ll monitor the horse back at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, to make sure a sore foot and his energy level are good enough to run in the Belmont on a three-week turnaround.

Casse can’t predict how War of Will responds this time, but he knows what it would mean if the horse comes out on top once again.

“He’s just an athlete,” Casse said. “It would just show that he’s tough and able to overcome things.”

How Bodexpress ran the 2019 Preakness without a jockey

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An already-chaotic Triple Crown season took a surprising turn at the 2019 Preakness Stakes when the No. 9 horse Bodexpress went on a joy ride without his Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

Just two weeks after Maximum Security‘s historic and controversial disqualification in the 145th Kentucky Derby, War of Will, one of the horses most impacted by Maximum Security in the homestretch turn, crossed the wire first at Pimlico to win the 144th Preakness.

But all eyes were on Bodexpress

The moment the bell rang and the gates flew open, the Kentucky-bred colt jumped out and up, unseating Velazquez. The jockey landed on the dirt but got up and walked off the track under his own power.

“He was just not behaving well in the gate,” Velazquez said after the race. “He wasn’t standing well. He got me against a wall in the gate, and when the doors opened, I was kind of off right from the start and he jumped sideways. And I had my feet out of the irons, so I lost my balance and I went off.”

To the delight of viewers around the world, Bodexpress kept running, minus around 100 pounds of human. He kept pace with the pack for some time before falling back.

See the full race replay of the 144th Preakness Stakes

Horses are herd animals and Bodexpress was bred and trained to run, so it was no surprise that he kept going with the pack.

Outriders, the people on horseback around the track who help control the race surroundings, couldn’t chase him down initially because of how close he was to other horses. They tried to grab him as he turned towards the homestretch, but he dodged the attempt by scooting to the middle of the pack.

The 20-1 shot crossed the wire ahead of Market King, but his trip didn’t end there. He zoomed past horses as they were pulling up and ran an entire extra lap. When all was said and done, he was a little sweaty but in good health.

Stewards briefly flashed the inquiry sign because of his horseplay, but they quickly released it and named War of Will the official winner. Bodexpress was given last placed and named “did not finish.”

Trained by Gustavo Delgado, Bodexpress was a late entry into the Kentucky Derby after morning line favorite Omaha Beach scratched. The 71-1 longshot finished 14th at Churchill and was elevated to 13th. He has never won a race, with or without a jockey.

“I’m good,” Velazquez said. “I’m just disappointed.”

See Larry Collmus, voice of the Triple Crown, call the 144th Preakness