National News

Triple Crown buzz stirs

Posted May 7, 2018 8:00 a.m. EDT

LOUISVILLE, KY. _ It didn't take long. Seconds, ok, maybe minutes, after Justify splashed across the finish line to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, here came the whispers.

Triple Crown?

There is only one horse eligible to sweep the holy grail of thoroughbred racing and that is Justify, who, if he wasn't already there, skyrocketed to the head of his division with his authoritative 21/2-length win in the Run for the Roses.

Next up is the Preakness Stakes, a week from Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. A win there, and it's onto New York and the crown's final leg, the Belmont Stakes on June 9 at Belmont Park.

"You know how I feel about his ability," winning jockey Mike Smith said. "I mean, given the opportunity, there's no telling what this horse can do."

The Triple Crown, which stood unclaimed for 37 years before American Pharoah earned it in 2015, is a hot topic again. That's because Justify, unbeaten in four starts, has taken the first major step of becoming a super horse.

Baffert is saying that Justify, who has won those four starts by a combined 211/2 lengths, is already one of the top three horses he has ever trained, joining American Pharoah and 2016 champion 3-year-old Arrogate.

Baffert was not going to get caught up in the Triple Crown hype the day after the Kentucky Derby. He did parade Justify outside his Churchill Downs barn for the media to see. He did the same thing after American Pharoah won the 2015 Derby, but Justify does not seem as comfortable with the paparazzi as Pharoah was.

Justify struggled under the hold Baffert had on him and raised his head and shook it as the cameras clicked. After maybe a minute, Baffert had the horse put back in his stall.

"He looks phenomenal," Baffert said. "He's full of himself. He knows he's a stud. He came back and he really wasn't that tired. He ate up (Saturday night) and he has been a handful. When I got him out of his stall, he was pulling me around; usually they're a little bit tired."

Baffert said there was no reason not to say the next target for Justify would be the Preakness. For now, the horse will stay at Churchill Downs under the care of Baffert's assistant Jimmy Barnes (Baffert flew home to California Sunday).

The plan is for Justify to ship to Baltimore the Wednesday before the race (May 16).

The horse will not return to the track until Wednesday.

Starting Sunday morning, you won't hear Baffert talking about the Triple Crown. At least not yet.

"Right now, I'm just thinking about keeping him healthy," said Baffert, who has won the Preakness six times. "We still have another one in a couple weeks if all is well. We won the toughest and most important one. If he wins the Preakness, then we'll see."

The Preakness looks like it could be a short field _ the maximum amount of horses that can start in the 13/16-mile race is 14. With only one confirmed horse from the Derby, it doesn't appear anyone wants to tackle the imposing Justify.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said that he expects to run Bravazo, who was sixth in the Derby, in the Preakness. Lukas, who has also won the Preakness six times, said he will also bring Sporting Chance, last year's Hopeful winner at Saratoga, to run in the Preakness. Sporting Chance ran in the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard Saturday and finished fourth.

Lukas' last Preakness win came in 2013 when he saddled Oxbow to the victory. Oxbow also finished sixth in the Derby.

Two other horses that could show up in the Preakness are Quip, the Arkansas Derby runner-up, and Diamond King, who won the Federico Tesio at Laurel on April 21.

Quip is co-owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, which also co-owns Justify.

"We'll see how the week plays out," Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar said Sunday morning. "My first inclination is to go ahead and run (Quip). If Justify is supposed to win the Triple Crown, he'll beat Quip. We're not going to make a final decision (Sunday)."

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