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

Triple Crown winner Justify to resume training in California

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Triple Crown champion Justify has returned to his base at Santa Anita accompanied by a police escort and was greeted by trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith.

The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont flew from Louisville, Kentucky, to Ontario, California, on Sunday. After landing, four Arcadia Police Department units traveled with the 13th Triple Crown winner to the racetrack.

After winning the Belmont in New York on June 9, Justify returned to Churchill Downs, where he and his human connections were honored on Saturday night.

Justify will resume training this week and be paraded between races this weekend.

NBC presents 22 hours of daily live coverage of Royal Ascot

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STAMFORD, Conn. – June 14, 2018 – NBC Sports presents daily live coverage of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England  – one of the most prestigious horse racing meets in the world – including the first-ever NBC broadcast of the race on Saturday, June 23, at 9 a.m. ET. Live coverage of the event begins Tuesday, June 19, at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN, with daily telecasts of the full five-day Royal meeting on NBCSN through Friday, June 22. In total, NBC Sports Group will present 22 hours of coverage over the five days.

Royal Ascot is one of the world’s most valuable horse racing events, attracting many of the world’s finest racehorses.  The event features 30 races, including eight at the world championship “Group One” level. Highlighting the American contingent is trainer Wesley Ward, who has won nine races at Royal Ascot over the years. He is scheduled to bring 10 horses to Ascot this year, highlighted by Lady Aurelia, who is looking to win her third straight race at The Royal Meeting. She races in the King’s Stand on Tuesday during NBCSN’s first day of coverage.

The Royal Meeting is the center of the British social season and a pivotal week in the calendar of the Royal Family, who arrive every day by the world famous “Royal Procession” – with the first carriage carrying The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

NBC News’ Dylan Dreyer makes her Royal Ascot debut on Friday and Saturday, alongside Nick Luck, who will host coverage for all five days. On Friday morning, June 22, Dreyer will report live from Berkshire on TODAY.

Following is NBC Sports’ schedule for the Royal Ascot next week:

Date Time (ET) Show Network
Tues., June 19 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Wed., June 20 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Thurs., June 21 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Fri., June 22 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Sat., June 23 9 a.m. Royal Ascot NBC

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and connected TVs – will stream coverage of the Royal Meeting. The NBC Sports app will stream coverage via “TV Everywhere,” giving consumers additional value to their subscription service, and making high-quality content available to MVPD customers both in and out of the home and on multiple platforms. Powered by Playmaker Media, the NBC Sports app is available on Apple iOS, Android and select Samsung devices, as well as on Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Win10, and Xbox.

NBC SPORTS GROUP AND HORSE RACING: In addition to the Royal Ascot, NBC Sports Group is the exclusive home to the most important and prestigious events in horse racing, including the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. Also in 2018, NBC Sports Group televised the world’s richest horse race (the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational) and the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and in June presented the Epsom Derby. NBC has been the exclusive home of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes since 2001, and the Belmont Stakes since 2011, when NBC Sports Group reassembled the Triple Crown.