ARCADIA (CNS) - Three years after American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in nearly four decades, Southern California trainer Bob Baffert is hoping that another one of his star pupils -- Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify -- will accomplish that same daunting feat in today's Belmont Stakes in New York.
The trainer told reporters recently at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia that the 3-year-old colt is ``starting to act like Pharoah'' and is ``going to have to really lay it out there.''
``I know he's the best horse. If I have him right and he runs his race, then, you know, he's got to get the mile and a half (distance),'' Baffert said. ``After going through the Triple Crown, I think it just takes a superior horse. You have to be the best of your crop and that's what he is.''
Justify, who is undefeated in five starts, was unraced as a 2-year-old and won his first career start at Santa Anita in February by 9 1/2 lengths. He subsequently went on to victory in two other races at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby, while on his way to the Triple Crown trail.
Less than four months after his first race, the colt with just under $3 million in earnings is expected to be the favorite in the most grueling of the three legs of the Triple Crown.
Justify has ``got everything it takes to go through these Triple Crown races,'' but everything will still have to go right, Baffert said.
The trainer noted that the Triple Crown trophy was ``a little bit dusty'' when American Pharoah won in 2015, noting the 37-year drought between winners since Affirmed was victorious in 1978.
He said he knows the pressure of a Triple Crown run given American Pharoah's successful campaign, along with that of his three prior Triple Crown contenders -- Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem -- who failed to win the Belmont.
``It's hard for me to really compare it with other sports because it's something that's so demanding and you have to squeeze it in a short period. It's almost like going to the Final Four (in college basketball), you know. You (have) just got to keep going and going and going and there's no time to take a breather. It's definitely very difficult.''
When asked about the similarities between American Pharoah and his latest Triple Crown contender, Baffert said the two are ``different types of horses.'' He noted that American Pharoah loved human contact and would ``put his head in your lap'' while Justify will ``give you maybe three, four, five seconds and then he's done with you.''
But he said the two do have a similar way of moving over the ground.
Ahmed Zayat, who owned American Pharoah when he won the Triple Crown, said he's pulling for a victory for Justify.
``I believe that he's incredibly talented,'' he said earlier this week. ``I do believe and hope and pray that he will be the 13th Triple Crown winner. I think the sports need it. We all need to continue having stars. A sport without a star is not a sport,'' he said.
Jockey Mike Smith has ridden Justify in all but his first start and said he thinks the colt has ``the kind of ability that can pull something like this off.''
``In saying that, he's got to do out and do it so we still have a job to be done,'' said Smith, who said Justify has a ``mind that goes along with the talent.''
Trainers of two of Justify's rivals in the Belmont acknowledged that Justify is the horse to beat.
``It's a major challenge for us or for anybody, I suppose, to beat him, but that's what it's all about. I mean we can't let him go around there by himself,'' said Bill Mott, who conditions the lightly raced Hofburg, who was second in the Florida Derby and seventh in the Kentucky Derby. ``We've got to try to offer some competition and we think we've got a good horse ... It's certainly not an easy task. You've got to have a good horse, you've got to have a tough horse and, you know, you've got to be able to withstand the challenges of horses that probably haven't run in both races (the Kentucky Derby and Preakness). We skipped the Preakness so hopefully we're fresh and ready to go.''
Dale Romans, who trains Belmont contender Free Drop Billy, simply called Justify ``a monster.''
``You can just tell that he is a special horse,'' Romans said, noting that ``it's exciting'' being a part of something that could be historic.
``... We ran third in the Belmont (with Keen Ice) when Pharoah ran ... Just being there as a racing fan, I was glad to be a participant and feel the electricity and the energy from all the people and all the fans that day and it makes the whole day a little bit more special,'' Romans said.
Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew to his Triple Crown victory in 1977 when that colt was undefeated, said he thinks Justify has done everything right so far.
``He just seems to improve with every race. He's a formidable horse,'' Turner said earlier this week.
If Justify wins, Baffert would be just the second trainer with more than one Triple Crown victory. The last time it happened was in 1935 when Omaha won the Triple Crown for trainer Jim Fitzsimmons, who had won with Gallant five years earlier.
But he said a few weeks ago that he doesn't even think about what it would feel like to win one of horse racing's most prestigious titles again.
``I was so blessed that I had American Pharoah. When he retired, I'll never forget how sad I was,'' Baffert said. ``I said, `Wow, I'll never have another horse like that.' Then here comes Arrogate (who had a seven-race win streak that included wins in three of the world's richest thoroughbred horse races) and he's gone (to become a stallion). ... Boom, here comes Justify. I just hope this keeps on going.''
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