Justify tunes up for Triple Crown try with impressive gallop

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NEW YORK – Triple Crown contender Justify glided over the track in his first trip over the Belmont Park strip on Thursday morning.

The strapping chestnut colt is the odds-on favorite to complete the series sweep on Saturday in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes following victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Justify arrived here Wednesday afternoon after a flight from Kentucky. Bob Baffert, his Hall of Fame trainer, was delighted with how well the horse handled the shipping and the unfamiliar surroundings on an overcast morning.

“He looked like he was getting over it really well,” Baffert said after the gallop. “It looked like he was happy. He was a little aggressive, a little fresh. He couldn’t have looked any better.”

Justify went 1 3/8 miles, keen and eager as he flashed by the grandstand.

Baffert said he omitted the customary ear plugs, which might have put Justify slightly on edge. The plugs will be back in for a final gallop on Friday. Justify uses them only for training, not racing.

Baffert has decided against schooling Justify in the paddock or the starting gate.

“Everywhere he’s gone, it’s like he’s been there before,” Baffert said. “He went around there today like he’s been here. He’s a very intelligent horse.”

The Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races at 1+ miles over a demanding surface known as “Big Sandy”.

That shouldn’t be a problem for Justify, according to Baffert.

“We’ve been training over a deep and tiring track in California,” he said. “My horses, when they come here, just float over this. It was really nice.”

With a Belmont victory, Justify would be the 13th Triple Crown winner, and the second conditioned by Baffert. He took the Crown with American Pharoah in 2015.

Mike Smith was also impressed. Smith, who rides Justify on Saturday, watched as exercise rider Humberto Gomez was aboard for the gallop.

“He looked very nice going over the ground, looks really good,” Smith said. “He should like the track.”

Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

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BENSALEM, Pa. – Taiba won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby by three lengths for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Ridden by Mike Smith, Taiba ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.67 and paid $4.80, $3 and $2.60.

It was Baffert’s fourth win in the Grade 1 event at Parx Racing. He also won in 2014, 2017 and 2018. Smith won the race for the third time, all aboard Baffert horses.

Zandon returned $3.80 and $2.60. Cyberknife was another 3 3/4 lengths back in third and paid $3 to show.

Taiba was coming off a second-place finish in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in July. The colt was 12th in the Kentucky Derby under Tim Yakteen, who took over training him while Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension.

“He had a little bit of a rough trip in the Haskell, but we had some time to get him ready for this one,” Baffert said from his base in California. “He proved today he is a good horse. He is getting better and better.”

Baffert Taiba will be pointed toward the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The colt has three wins in five starts this year.

Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs has modified paths to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, awarding points to the top five finishers in qualifying races and increasing significance for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and late prep season events.

Most Derby prep races during the qualifying series for 3-year-olds will award points on a 10-4-3-2-1 sliding scale after using a 10-4-2-1 system since 2013. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, run during the season-ending championships on Nov. 4 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, will increase points from 20-8-4-2 to 30-12-9-6-3 to differentiate the Grade I event from others during prep season.

Select prep races for the 20-horse Derby field have elevated points from a 10-4-2-1 scale to 20-8-6-4-2 to increase their importance and motivate hopefuls to begin their 3-year-old campaigns earlier in the season, track officials stated in a release.

“We believe these modifications adhere to and amplify our goal of assembling the finest group of 3-year-olds in the starting gate for a race at the classic distance of 1\ miles on the first Saturday in May,” Churchill Downs vice president/general manager Mike Ziegler said.

The 149th Kentucky Derby and Oaks for fillies will be held on May 5-6, 2023. Derby qualifying season begins with Saturday’s $300,000, Grade III Iroquois for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

The point changes apply to Oaks qualifiers.

Elevated Derby preps include the Lecomte at Fair Grounds in Louisiana; Southwest at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; Withers at Aqueduct in New York; Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida; Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in California; Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; and John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park in Kentucky.