Bob Baffert has done everything he can with Justify. Now, it’s up to the undefeated colt and some racing luck to add his name to a revered list of Triple Crown winners.
He will run 1-1/2 miles (2400m) around Belmont’s sweeping oval on Saturday (Sunday AEST) with nine rivals gunning to keep history from happening.
Having failed with horses three times before American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, Baffert knows how tough it can be to get it done.
A combination of factors can help or hurt a horse, including a poor start, bad racing luck or jockey error.
In 2002, War Emblem nearly fell to his knees when the starting gate opened and finished eighth.
In 2004, Smarty Jones put away two rivals early and was ahead by four lengths in his bid for Triple Crown immortality. Then came the final furlong of the fastest Belmont since the advent of modern timing. Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, reeled in Smarty Jones, who lost by a length.
Besides the gruelling distance, the track itself can be tricky. Horses and riders aren’t used to 1-1/2-mile races in the United States where the focus is on sprinting.
Some have mistakenly moved too early and burned out before the long straight run. Others have moved too late and let the leaders get away.
“It’s just about getting the horse in a good, happy, comfortable place, wherever that may be,” jockey Mike Smith said.
“He’s got such a natural high cruising speed and he can just kind of keep on going.”
If Justify wins on Saturday, he will have faced the largest field (nine) of any of the previous 12 Triple Crown winners.
He is bidding to join Seattle Slew in 1977 as the only undefeated Triple Crown champions. After not racing as a two-year-old, Justify has made up for lost time and is five from five.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way he looks,” Baffert said. “He looks no different than the way American Pharoah did coming in here.”
A crowd capped at 90,000 is expected at Belmont Park.
“I was just surprised on how well he handled the atmosphere at the Derby with the crowd, how he handled it at the Preakness because every time he shows up people start yelling and screaming and he just looks at them like, ‘Thank you,”‘ Baffert said.
“Once he enters the building, it’ll be like Elvis.”