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.

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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

Maximum Security beaten in first start since Derby DQ

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OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) The Triple Crown series was marked by the unexpected and the whacky 3-year-old season continued when Maximum Security returned to racing for the first time since being disqualified in the Kentucky Derby.

Sent off as the overwhelming 1-20 favorite, Maximum Security simply got beat. There was no DQ, no runaway horse like in the Preakness or improbable winner like in the Belmont.

It was just an upset marked by a stumble at the start that might have cost Maximum Security the race and left the division wide open.

Second-choice King for a Day stalked Maximum Security from the start, took the lead in the stretch and posted a one-length victory in the $150,000 Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park on Sunday.

“I think the next race will be better,” said Jason Servis, the trainer of Maximum Security “We needed to get that of the way. I was glad to get it out of the way even though he got beat.”

It marked the first time Maximum Security has not crossed the finish line first in six career starts, and the stumble might have been the difference.

“It was a tough week,” said Servis, who had debated whether to run Maximum Security because he was not sure he was ready. “He was feeling pretty good this morning. He was jumping and kicking. But the stumble hurt us a lot.”

Maximum Security and regular rider Luis Saez broke from the No. 2 post and quickly recovered from the stumble to take the lead in the field of six 3-year-olds.

Jockey Joe Bravo moved King for a Day from the No. 3 post to his flank and the two made this a two-horse race until the Todd Pletcher-trained winner wore down Maximum Security in the stretch.

“I really felt comfortable getting into the turn,” Bravo said. “I could see Luis was already riding. I could see that he was in trouble. Turning for home, Maximum Security did pull away a bit. My horse was still going comfortable.”

King for a Day, who won the Sir Barton at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard, covered the 1 1/16 mile race in 1:42.59. The son of Uncle Mo paid $13.80, $2.40 and $2.20 for his third victory in five career starts.

Maximum Security returned $2.10 and $2.10. Direct Order finished third and returned $3.80.

“In the end he was a little tired,” Saez said. “I’m not disappointed. Definitely not. He will be OK. I think he needed the race. This is horse racing. Anything can happen. He’s a real good horse. That hasn’t changed. I think the next time he will be OK.”

Owned by Gary and Mary West, Maximum Security finished 1 3/4 lengths in front of Country House in the Kentucky Derby on May 4 but was disqualified by Churchill Downs stewards for interference with eventual Preakness winner War of Will.

It marked the first time in the 145-year history of the Derby that the first-place finisher was disqualified for interference.

The Wests are challenging the Kentucky Derby disqualification in federal court.

Last Judgment was fourth in the Pegasus, followed by Identifier and Caladan in the feature on the Father’s Day card that drew 24,062.

Country House is probably finished racing for the year, trainer Bill Mott told the Daily Racing Form on Saturday night at Churchill Downs.

Country House has been galloping at the track in recent weeks, but Mott has not been satisfied with how the colt trained and looked. He was shipped to Saratoga last week and will be sidelined for two months or longer.

Maximum Security is next expected to run in the Haskell Invitational here on July 20. Pletcher said King for a Day will join his stable at Saratoga and be evaluated before deciding his next start.

Rafael Bejarano rides 4,000th winner at Santa Anita

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Jockey Rafael Bejarano rode his 4,000th career winner at Santa Anita.

He guided filly Portal Creek to a 3 }-length victory in the third race Saturday for trainer Bob Hess Jr.

The 36-year-old Peruvian jockey says Santa Anita has always been a special place for him. He won six races at the Southern California track in his first day riding there on April 8, 2006.

Bejarano came to the U.S. in 2002 after training at a national riding academy in Peru. He led the U.S. in victories with 455 in 2004.

He has career purse earnings of $200,611,833 and five victories in the Breeders’ Cup.