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

Racehorse takes lead, dies at Laurel Park; Maryland’s 12th

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LAUREL, Md. (AP) A 5-year-old horse died of a suspected heart attack during a race at Laurel Park, the 12th racehorse to die in Maryland this year.

The Baltimore Sun reports the mare named Follow the Petals collapsed on Sunday immediately after she had taken the lead in her race. The jockey was unharmed.

The Maryland Racing Commission reports nine horses have died during races and two during training between Jan. 1 and May 31. One of them was a filly that collapsed and died running at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course just one day ahead of the Preakness Stakes.

The Stronach Group owns Laurel Park and Pimlico as well as California’s Santa Anita Park, where 29 racehorses have died since December. It has called for sweeping reforms to medication rules.

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.