Bob Baffert believes Belmont buzz endures after end of Triple Crown drought

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NEW YORK — Some may say there’s less buzz for Justify’s bid for the Triple Crown at Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

It’s the first time in a generation without the dripping storyline of a Triple Crown drought. American Pharoah stopped that at 37 years when he swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont in 2015.

The worry then was that popularity would dissipate for future Triple Crown bids. Pharoah’s achievement could not be topped.

“I think there’s buzz,” said Bob Baffert, the 65-year-old who trained not only Pharoah but also Justify to Derby and Preakness victories. “After American Pharoah, I could tell a lot of people were getting into it after that. This horse [Justify], I think he’s got a following now. People want to see him. … Pharoah brought a lot of buzz to the sport. [Pharaoh showed] it can be done.”

Baffert remembers the prevailing pessimism watching TV and reading news reports after the 2014 Belmont, when California Chrome became the 13th horse to fail in a Triple Crown bid since Affirmed won in 1978.

Baffert believed the failure after failure kept some people from believing in Pharoah, from tuning in or turning up at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015.

They missed out.

“But I’ll never forget the Belmont with American Pharoah, the crowd, the noise,” Baffert said. “I mean, to me, I was like speechless.”

The fervor. The history. The Sports Illustrated cover. Baffert knows there are sports fans who missed it. This is their chance to embrace a Triple Crown bid.

“I just see it in the airports,” he said. “When I’m going through the airport, people like wishing me luck that — I don’t know, they’re just strangers.”

There’s a change in Baffert, too.

Before Pharoah, the Hall of Fame trainer had three Triple Crown bids derailed at the Belmont — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).

The weight is now off his shoulders. (“I do want to point out there, Bob Baffert is only 25 percent when going for Triple Crowns,” rival trainer Dale Romans joked.)

“It does feel like less pressure,” Baffert said at Tuesday’s draw at Citi Field before throwing a ceremonial first pitch at a Mets-Orioles game. “We’ve been through it. We know it can be done.”

Justify drew the No. 1 post for Saturday’s 10-horse race, meaning jockey Mike Smith must navigate cleanly out of the gate before the rest of the field crowds him on the rail.

Justify was installed as a 4-5 favorite, the same odds that California Chrome went off at in 2014. Pharoah left post five at the 2015 Belmont at 3-5.

Justify is clearly less favored to win than Pharoah was in 2015, NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said.

“Because his Preakness was not nearly as impressive as American Pharoah’s Preakness,” Moss said.

Pharoah won his Preakness by seven lengths. Justify won the Preakness three weeks ago by a half-length, with three horses finishing within about a length of the chestnut colt.

In Justify’s favor: He became the first horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness on sloppy tracks, and Saturday’s forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain on Long Island.

Then there’s the history at stake for horse, trainer and jockey. Justify can become the second undefeated Triple Crown winner (Seattle Slew, 1977) and the first to notch the feat without having raced as a 2-year-old.

“Justify’s got a chance to do something that’s even more special than just winning the Triple Crown, as if that’s not special enough,” Moss said.

Justify is taller and about 100 pounds heavier than American Pharoah in 2015.

“I haven’t seen any regression in his training or the way he looks,” said Baffert, who repeatedly names Justify with his greatest horses, Pharoah and Breeders’ Cup winners Arrogate. “There’s been a lot of great horses that get beat because they didn’t show up. They were tired.”

Baffert’s got a chance to prove he’s the greatest Triple Crown trainer in history. He can break a tie with rival D. Wayne Lukas for most Triple Crown race wins (both have 14) and match “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as the only trainers to win multiple Triple Crowns.

Lukas nearly played spoiler at the Preakness with runner-up Bravazo, who went off at 15-1 and has early Belmont odds of 8-1. The 82-year-old Lukas said keeping Baffert from another history-making win on Saturday is “the furthest thing from my mind.”

“First of all, I have great respect for Bob,” he said, standing a few feet from Baffert before Tuesday’s draw. “But you’re getting paid to spoil the dream.”

Then there’s 52-year-old jockey Mike Smith, who has over $300 million in earnings (second all-time) but of course no Triple Crown.

“I don’t think I got that opportunity at a young age because I don’t think I was ready for it,” Smith said after becoming the oldest jockey to win the Preakness. “Right now I am.”

Baffert’s the only figure in the group, Justify’s owners included, to do it before.

For years, he was tortured between the Preakness and Belmont watching those TV reports, seeing Touch Gold surging past Silver Charm in 1997 and Victory Gallop bobbing Real Quiet by a nose in 1998.

“I enjoy it a little more now because before, I always viewed coming here as something that was missing in my career,” he said. “To be able to get it, it was pretty satisfying.”

Follow Nick Zaccardi on Twitter: @nzaccardi

What to know about the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby

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The Kentucky Derby is one of the most iconic sporting events in the world. Every year, millions of fans tune into NBC to watch top race horses from around the globe compete in “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports.”

What is the Kentucky Derby? The Kentucky Derby, run the first Saturday in May, is one of the most well known Grade 1 Thoroughbred stakes races in the world. First run in 1875, this 1 1/4 mile–or 10 furlongs–race kicks off the American Triple Crown of horse racing.

When and where is the Kentucky Derby? The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, May 4, 2019 with a post time of 6:50 p.m. ET.

The Derby is run on the dirt track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, where it has been held since its inaugural running in 1875.

How can I watch the Kentucky Derby? NBC is home to the 145th Kentucky Derby, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and NBCSports.com before, during and after. NBC will also broadcast the 2019 Preakness Stakes and 2019 Belmont Stakes.

How are horses picked for the Derby? Only 3-year-old Thoroughbreds can qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Eligible horses compete in the Race to the Kentucky Derby, a series of 35 races around the world. Horses win points for finishing in the top four spots, and the 20 horses with the most points at the end of the series gain entry into the Derby.

Who won last year? WinStar Farm’s colt Justify, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, won the 144th Kentucky Derby. He went on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, becoming the 13th horse ever to win the Triple Crown.

What are the biggest Kentucky Derby traditions? Bold formal outfits for both men and women are synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. Celebrities and fans a like go all out, donning creative and colorful hats, bright colors and wild patterns. In fact, hats and outfits are such a big part of the Kentucky Derby that the Derby Museum has a whole exhibit for the most lavished fashions.

The Mint Julep, made with Kentucky bourbon, is the signature drink of the Derby, and Kentucky’s state song “My Old Kentucky Home” is played during the pre-race post parade. After the race, the champion horse is given the iconic garland of roses in the winner’s circle.

What else is there to do during Derby Weekend? The Kentucky Oaks is a Grade 1 stakes race held annually the day before the Kentucky Derby. The Oaks has the same 3-year-old restriction as the Derby but is for fillies only. Additionally, there is a week of events at Churchill Downs, and the month-long Kentucky Derby Festival celebrated across Louisville.

Jockey Craig Perret among nine finalists for HOF

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Jockey Craig Perret, trainers Mark Casse, Christophe Clement and David Whiteley, and five thoroughbreds are contemporary finalists for the National Museum of Racing’s 2019 Hall of Fame ballot.

The racehorses are Blind Luck, Gio Ponti, Havre de Grace, Rags to Riches and Royal Delta.

Results of the voting on the contemporary candidates will be announced April 22. All candidates that receive majority approval of the voting panel will be elected to the Hall of Fame.

The hall’s induction ceremony will be held Aug. 2 in Saratoga Springs.