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

Victor Espinoza plans comeback in late December

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza is planning a comeback in late December after fracturing a vertebra in his neck during a training accident at Del Mar.

That’s according to his agent Brian Beach, who says Friday that Espinoza saw his doctors this week and they are pleased with his progress. However, they’re not yet ready to release the 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey to ride again.

Beach says on his Twitter account that Espinoza “wants to be 100 percent when he comes back.”

A late December return would allow Espinoza to ride at Santa Anita, which opens its winter-spring meet on Dec. 26.

Espinoza got hurt July 22 when he fell while exercising a horse.

He rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown sweep in 2015.

Vale Dori scores upset win for Baffert in Zenyatta Stakes

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) Vale Dori defeated La Force by three-quarters of a length to win the $300,000 Zenyatta Stakes in an upset at Santa Anita on Sunday.

Abel Tasman, the 1-9 favorite trained by Bob Baffert, finished next-to-last, beaten 10 1/2 lengths. Vale Dori, an 11-1 shot also trained by Baffert, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.88 under Joe Talamo. The Grade 1 victory earned her an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3.

Vale Dori snapped a six-race skid.

Bettors waged $474,683 to show on Abel Tasman, who was fresh off a pair of Grade 1 victories in New York under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. But she broke poorly from the starting gate and never fired.

“I’m as shocked as everybody else, but they’ll do that,” Baffert said. “I’m worried about (Abel Tasman) because Mike said she was lethargic, and she’s up there where all these sick horses are, so I hope she’s not getting sick.”

Vale Dori returned $24.60, $13.20 and $40.60. She earned $180,000, and increased her career earnings to $1,365,567.

La Force paid $8.40 and $14.60. Shenandoah Queen was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third and paid $26.60 to show.