Horses Horse News

Geoff Lester
5 minute read
6 Jun 2018
10:55 am

Bob Baffert hoping to justify his claims to Triple Crown glory

Geoff Lester

Dutch Connection could provide the answer.

WARM-UP. Justify, ridden by exercise rider Humberto Gomez, gallops at Churchill Downs in preparation for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes and a possible Triple Crown in New York. Picture: AP

So unforgiving is dirt racing Stateside that, besides requiring a flash of brilliance to win the American Triple Crown, you need a horse with an amazing constitution as the three Grade 1 races come up in the space of just five weeks.

However, trainer Bob Baffert, who pulled off the prestigious treble with American Pharoah in 2015, firmly believes that JUSTIFY can emulate his former stable- star by winning the Belmont in New York on Saturday.

“Pharoah” ended a 37-year wait when becoming the first since Affirmed in 1978 to pull o racing’s three-card trick, and, though Justify only had his first race on 18 February this year, he goes into the final leg unbeaten in five and odds-on favourite to become the 13th horse to carve his name on the most elite honours board in the sport.

No fewer than 23 horses have won the first two legs (Kentucky Derby and Preakness), only to fail at the final hurdle, and eight of them finished second, falling one spot short of a place in racing’s history books.

Those “nearly” champions included Sunday Silence and Silver Charm, the latter also trained by Baffert, who is oozing confidence about Justify’s chance of joining not only American Pharoah but also the likes of Secretariat and Sea le Slew on the roll of honour.

What makes the Belmont the toughest race of the three is the fact it is run over 2400m, almost an alien distance in American dirt racing.

Baffert said: ”We don’t race too often over that trip, but if you have a superior horse you can do it, and I don’t see why Justify cannot pull it off.

“I realise that Justify has emerged from nowhere in a short space of time, but the so-called experts were saying he could not win the Derby as he was too inexperienced and now they are claiming he won’t win the Belmont as he has had too much racing.

“I have never known a horse who bounces back from his races as quickly as Justify, and since Churchill Downs we have seen him come forward again.

“Like Pharoah, he is being hailed an equine rock-star, and he might just prove that he is even better.

“We gave Justify his final blow-out on the track on Monday morning, and he barely took a deep breath.

“Everything comes so easy to him – he had to scrap in the Preakness, but that race made a man of him. It switched the light-bulb on mentally, and he is now the complete professional.”

Justify was forced to cope with a sloppy track both in the Derby and again at Pimlico, and, while thunderstorms are being forecast for the Big Apple this weekend, Baffert would prefer the racecourse to remain dry so that his son of the ill-fated Scat Daddy can show the world his potent finishing kick up the home stretch.

Bravazo, the big hope of the legendary D Wayne Lukas, was only 0.5 lengths behind in the Preakness, with Tenfold just a neck away in third, but bookmakers have Bill Mott’s Hofburg as second-favourite, reason being that, while only seventh to Justify in Kentucky, his pedigree suggests he might cope with the extra distance better than the favourite.

Meanwhile, back in Europe the UK Triple Crown hopes of Cool- more were left in tatters when 2000 Guineas hero Saxon Warrior bombed out in the Derby at Epsom last weekend, finishing only fourth behind Godolphin’s Masar.

Saxon Warrior was as at as last night’s champagne, but the bookmakers still have him odds- on to take his revenge on Masar in the Irish equivalent at The Curragh on 30 June.

However, Masar, a first Derby winner for Sheikh Mohammed in the all blue silks of Godolphin, might well drop back in trip and run instead in the Eclipse at Sandown a week later.

My doubts about Masar staying the 2400m at Epsom were totally unfounded – there were no worries on pedigree, but he is a free-running individual who shows so much speed – but, while hugely impressed with the way he put the world’s greatest Flat race to bed, I am not sure Godolphin have come up with the right two options.

Masar, who has raced in four different countries on three continents in the past nine months, wintered in Dubai and had a race on dirt at the Meydan Carnival, and has since won the Craven, finished third in the Guineas and enjoyed his finest hour at Epsom.

By American standards, that may not look a busy schedule, but connections have indicated the Champions Stakes and Breeders Cup Turf are on his agenda for the autumn, so what better time to give Masar his midsummer break.

After all, Enable, the best filly in Europe last season, is off games until August at least, and stable-mate Cracksman looked vulnerable on the quicker ground when struggling to win the Group 1 Coronation Cup at Epsom last week.

The challenge of pitching a three-year-old in against his elders at Ascot (28 July) has always appealed to the Maktoums – the ploy worked successfully with Nashwan, Belmez, King’s Theatre, Lammtarra and Taghrooda – and aiming for the King George would give Masar four and three weeks longer holiday respectively than if he went to Ireland or Sandown.

The Derby means everything to Coolmore so they are still licking their wounds as they struggle to come to terms with Saxon Warrior’s first defeat, but Epsom was not all doom and gloom for the Tipperary tigers as they won the Oaks with Forever Together.

Forever Together looks the Coolmore filly who is going forwards, though I can’t wait for Lah Ti Dar to test her mettle in the Irish equivalent next month.

There is an “after the lord mayor’s show” feeling about the racing menu in the UK next Saturday, with Royal Ascot less than two weeks away, but there are two Group 3s at Haydock, and I like CRIBBS CAUSEWAY in the Pinnacle Stakes and DUTCH CONNEC- TION in the John O’Gaunt Stakes.