As Editor’s Note powered to victory in the Belmont Stakes, giving his trainer D. Wayne Lukas yet another victory in the Triple Crown series, a young trainer wondered what kind of Triple Crown hell he was in. Just five weeks earlier, Bob Baffert had seen his first ever Kentucky Derby starter, Cavonnier come oh so tantalizingly close to earning victory in America’s most celebrated race. Now, just moments after the final leg of the series had been completed, he feared for his horse’s life. The year was 1996, and Baffert’s initial experience in the Belmont was anything but good.
Cavonnier, the betting favorite of that Belmont Stakes, exited the race with a bowed tendon. The injury was enough to end his racing career, but thankfully, it was not life threatening. Ever since that difficult experience, Baffert has been a trainer to watch in the Test of the Champion. In fact, the wisecracking trainer nearly won it the very next year when his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winning Silver Charm led late in the Belmont Park stretch.
Sure, there has been Belmont Stakes misery for the now 65-year-old trainer, but not the same kind as seeing Cavonnier pulled up in the stretch of his first attempt. Touch Gold, and then Victory Gallop one year later, dashed Triple Crown dreams for a pair of hearty Baffert stars, Silver Charm and Real Quiet, but in both instances, his horse had run big in the Belmont.
When the Hall of Fame conditioner tightens the girth on Justify next Saturday afternoon in front of 90,000 fans at Belmont Park, it will be his 11th starter in the mile-and-a-half classic. There have been a few disappointments over the years, most notably the lackluster performance of the speedy War Emblem in his quest for a Triple Crown, and the seventh-place result of his star filly, Silverbulletday, but for the most part, Baffert horses have continued their strong form into the Belmont.
After Cavonnier, Baffert’s nine starters in the Belmont have produced two winners, and three second-place finishes. His winners dominated, and his runner-ups were all narrow defeats. American Pharoah, of course, was the star of stars, controlling the long race from start to finish on his way to becoming the only horse to sweep the Triple Crown in the last 39 years.
Baffert’s Triple Crown hero was not the only one from his barn to impress in the Belmont, though. Back in 2001, his champion Point Given ran what was quite probably the best race in the final leg of the series in the past quarter-century. The hulking son of Thunder Gulch showed no signs of tiredness from his Kentucky Derby and Preakness runs, as he raced to a 12 1/4-length drubbing of his competition at Big Sandy. His final time of 2.26 2/5 places him as the fourth fastest on the all-time list.
More recently, Baffert saw his Game On Dude in the picture late, before ultimately finishing a close fourth in 2010. Two years later, his lightly raced Paynter ran a bang-up race, before just falling short in the final yards to the rail-skimming run of Union Rags. And then there was American Pharoah.
Arguably, Baffert’s best four horses which he previously brought to the Triple Crown; Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Point Given, and American Pharoah, all ran to the best of their abilities in the demanding final leg. You can now add the name of Justify to the list of best horses the trainer has ever run in the series.
Three years removed from his ultimate victory, Baffert looks for another monumental win in the Belmont. In Justify, he has a powerhouse colt who has already accomplished so much in a short span of time, going from an unraced maiden to an undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in just three months.
Now the question becomes, will he join American Pharoah and Point Given as true Belmont Stakes heroes for his trainer, or will he fall a little short like so many Triple Crown wannabes have done in the last 39 years? One thing we know for sure, Bob Baffert will have his charge ready to run his ‘A’ game in the third, and final leg.
Photo of Justify courtesy of Coady Photography