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

Baffert sweeps Grade 1 two-year-old races at Los Alamitos

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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert swept the CashCall Futurity and Starlet for 2-year-olds, winning the Grade 1 races for the second straight year at Los Alamitos.

Improbable won the $300,345 Futurity by five lengths as the 1-5 favorite and 3-2 favorite Chasing Yesterday won the $300,345 Starlet by a head on Saturday. Drayden Van Dyke became the second jockey to win both races in the same year.

Baffert earned his fifth straight victory in the Futurity and his 11th overall, having won it six times at old Hollywood Park.

Improbable ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.18 and paid $2.40 to win. The colt’s ownership includes most of the group that owned Triple Crown winner Justify.

In the Starlet, Chasing Yesterday ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.59 and paid $5 to win. She is a half-sister to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert.

Victor Espinoza aims for January comeback

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza is aiming to return to riding in January, six months after he was seriously injured in a training accident.

The 46-year-old rider says he had an MRI recently and “it came out perfect.” Espinoza says he doesn’t need surgery and his spinal cord has healed “perfectly,” which was his main concern.

He fractured a vertebra in his neck at Del Mar last July when the horse he was exercising fell.

Espinoza was back at Del Mar on Saturday for the first time since the accident. He presented the trophy to the winning connections in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He has been recuperating at his Del Mar home.

Espinoza says he hopes to return sometime in January at Santa Anita. The track opens its winter meet on Dec. 26.

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