SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on the epic race at the Belmont Stakes where Justify won the Triple Crown.
USA TODAY Sports
ELMONT, N.Y. – When Bob Baffert switched from quarter horses to thoroughbreds in 1991, fellow trainer D. Wayne Lukas was in the middle of his record run of 14 Triple Crown race victories.
Back then, the thought of ever catching Lukas wasn’t even a dream for Baffert.
“It was something that nobody was ever going to touch; it was just ridiculous,” Baffert said. “I’ve never really given it any thought. It was never a goal of mine.”
But now it’s reality.
With Justify’s victory in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Baffert now has a record 15 victories in Triple Crown races (five in the Kentucky Derby, seven in the Preakness and three in the Belmont).
He’s also just the second trainer ever to win two Triple Crowns, having also won with American Pharoah in 2015. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons is the only other trainer with two Triple Crowns, winning with Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.
It may be unfair to compare trainers from different eras, but the question is prominent given Baffert’s success in the biggest races: Is he the greatest North American trainer ever?
“He’s already established as one of the greatest trainers of all-time,” fellow trainer Chad Brown said before the Belmont. “He’s someone I admire — a great trainer, a great manager of his horses. He’s a really good long-term planner who has tremendous feel that you can’t teach somebody about exactly where you’re at with horses and how to deal with problems.
“… I think it would just be another accomplishment from a guy that seems to have done everything.”
Lukas joked that a second Triple Crown would earn Baffert a statue at his home track of Santa Anita Park.
“They’ll bronze Bob and put him in the paddock at Santa Anita,” Lukas said. “They already have a couple of statues, (Charlie) Whittingham and (Bill) Shoemaker. I don’t know why they don’t have Bob. I think that’s coming.”
Baffert ranks fourth all-time among North American trainers — behind Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen and D. Wayne Lukas — with more than $276 million in earnings, according to equibase.com.
But while Pletcher, Asmussen and Lukas all rank among the top 10 all-time in career victories, Baffert ranks 31st. It’s a testament to Baffert’s ability to identify and attract the top horses on a yearly basis.
“Bob trains every day differently from his gut,” said American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat. “He looks at the animal and asks him to do every day different from the day before, based on what he is seeing. … He got it down to a program where his horses are geared when to peak and not to peak.
“Not every horse can do what Justify has been doing, but I think if anybody right now is the magician of getting that done, it’s Bob Baffert.”
With the recent run of American Pharoah, Arrogate, West Coast and Justify, Baffert obviously has the advantage of saddling very talented horses.
But Brown said there’s more to it.
“These horses are great horses, but they’re not uncomplicated just because they’re good,” Brown said. “American Pharoah was running in the Kentucky Derby with an aluminum pad on his foot. (Justify) has a quarter crack going into the Preakness and has to get it checked, hasn’t even run at 2. It takes exceptional management and experience to deal with situations like that.”
Baffert has come to the Belmont five times with the chance to win the Triple Crown, missing out with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) before ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah.
“I did have a goal to win a Triple Crown because I always just felt a little empty,” Baffert said. “When somebody else would go for a Triple Crown, I had to see all of my old losses being repeated over and over and over. When American Pharoah won, the first call I got was from (Real Quiet owner) Mike Pegram. He said, ‘I’m glad you won because I don’t want to see any more reruns of Real Quiet getting beat.’”
Trainer Dale Romans said Baffert’s decision to scratch American Pharoah from the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because of a hoof bruise was an example of what makes Baffert great.
“He’s the best horse trainer in America, and he always puts his horses first,” Romans said. “Just like scratching American Pharoah from the Breeders’ Cup at 2. You know he didn’t have a serious injury. He even told me himself he could have run him. And a lot of us might have caved under the pressure, but he did the right thing and he went on and won the Triple Crown the next year.
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“The horse is always put first, and he’s just got that sixth sense of that.”
While he has reached the top of his profession, Baffert said the quest never stops. While Justify was training at Churchill Downs last week, Baffert said he was enjoying his time in California with his 2-year-olds, searching for his next great horse.
“Our season just goes, goes, goes,” Baffert said. “I’m just glad we had Pharoah, Arrogate, West Coast, this guy. The hits just keep coming. We just pinch ourselves that it’s really happening. … Somebody’s watching out for me.
“… I’m at a stage in my life now that I’m ready for this. If I’d had these horses 25 years ago when I first got in, I probably would have been second-guessing myself. Now we sit down and have a game plan. We tweak it a little bit, but everybody knows their role.”
Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; email@example.com; Twitter: @kyhighs. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/jasonf.