ELMONT, N.Y. — Imagine the protagonist in another sport during the final minutes before the biggest moment that sport has to offer just hanging out chatting with a group of reporters about whatever came to his mind. That was stream of consciousness from Bob Baffert about 6 p.m. Saturday next to the Belmont Park holding barn where the horse that would soon become the 13th Triple Crown winner was being walked around in circles.
It was a scene identical to three years before. Only it was American Pharoah then, Justify this time. The trainer and the result stayed the same. Even the race, to the lead, never challenged, looked eerily similar.
Horse racing stories are like no other stories. It is glory and heartbreak, with the glory fleeting, the heartbreak always lurking around the next bend. So, on a perfect June afternoon and evening, with 90,327 turning the grand old track on the western tip of Long Island into a daylong party, it was impossible not to get caught up in a celebration/gambling orgy when nearly $138 million was bet on the 13 races and just about everybody got to see what they came for, Justify dominating the Belmont Stakes field and winning the Triple Crown.
“I’m like a basketball coach,’’ Baffert said outside the barn. “One and done, two and done.’’
Pharoah was two and done after racing in 2014 and 2015, culminating his career with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming the first winner of racing’s Grand Slam. Justify is likely to be one and done, his final career race probably in that same BC Classic, Nov. 3 back at Churchill Downs, where he won the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
For now, Justify was to be flown back Monday to Churchill Downs, where he will unwind for a week. The second unbeaten Triple Crown winner is tentatively scheduled to be flown next Sunday to his California base, where he will rest before being prepared for a late summer return to gear up for the Breeders’ Cup.
Could that return be a trip to Parx for the Sept. 22 Pennsylvania Derby? Possible. Baffert won the race last year with West Coast and had a great time at the track in Bucks County. He also won the Pa. Derby in 2014 with Bayern. That the Pa. Derby is six weeks before the Breeders’ Cup offers perfect timing.
The nature of the sport — where breeding money trumps racing money and superstars are retired quickly with the unlikely to be fulfilled hope that they will create more superstars — is why we will probably see Justify on the track only a few more times.
Regardless, the racing schedule and ending are for later. Meanwhile, the celebration rolls on.
Baffert won his second Triple Crown, but is less than a length from having four. And if a tactical mistake had not been made with Point Given in the 2001 Derby and War Emblem had not stumbled so badly at the start of the 2002 Belmont, the trainer could actually have six Triple Crowns.
Five wins in the Derby, seven in the Preakness and three in the Belmont will do just fine.
Seattle Slew (1977) is the other unbeaten Triple Crown winner and his performances are remarkably similar to Justify’s. Both horses overwhelmed the competition with their speed. Seattle Slew was 9-for-9 when he won the Triple Crown, Justify 6-for-6. Slew raced three times as a 2-year-old. Justify was 111 days from his first race until winning the Belmont. Slew was only 94 days from his first race as a 3-year-old until his Belmont win.
Slew was flamboyant when he ran, a lightning bolt, really, always in a rush to the front. Justify can go really fast or just fast enough. His jockey, Mike Smith, had the perfect description of Justify.
“He listens to you,’’ Smith said. “Every time I want him to just take a breather, I just put my hands back down and he’d settle right back down and if I squeeze him a little, he’ll jump right back again.’’
When Smith squeezed in the stretch Saturday, Justify bolted for the wire. There was no catching the horse that has now finished in front of 49 horses, some twice, Bravazo three times.
Maiden win, optional claimer, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont. Perfect.
“I’ll never forget, I’ve never had a horse when I unloaded him the other day, when those horses in that barn went nuts when they saw him.’’ Baffert said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. They just knew his presence.’’
That was Wednesday when Justify arrived at Barn 1. When he returned Saturday night after a one-lap stroll around Belmont Park, he arrived as a Triple Crown winner.