NEW YORK — Bob Baffert has done everything he can with Justify. Now, it's up to the undefeated colt and some racing luck to add his name to a revered list of Triple Crown winners.
The chestnut colt with the blaze running down his face appears to have rebounded well after victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, with the most exhausting still to come. He'll run 1 1/2 miles around Belmont's sweeping oval Saturday with nine rivals gunning to keep history from happening.
Having failed with horses three times before American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, Baffert knows how tough it can be to get it done. A combination of factors can help or hurt a horse, including a poor start, bad racing luck or jockey error.
In 2002, War Emblem nearly fell to his knees when the starting gate sprang open, and Baffert knew the ornery colt was done. He straggled home in eighth place, beaten 19 1/2 lengths by a 70-1 shot.
In 2004, Smarty Jones put away two rivals early and was ahead by four lengths in his bid for Triple Crown immortality. Then came the final furlong of the fastest Belmont since the advent of modern timing. Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, reeled in Smarty Jones, who lost by a length.
"I knew on the first turn that it wasn't good because the way the horse was running, he was not relaxed and we still had a mile and a half to go almost," jockey Stewart Elliott recalled recently. "I knew unless he settled it wasn't going to work and he still almost won."
Besides the grueling distance, the track itself can be tricky. Horses and riders aren't used to 11/2-mile races in the U.S., where the focus is on sprinting. Some have mistakenly moved too early and gotten burned out before the long stretch run. Others have moved too late and let the leaders get away.
Historically, deep closers have not fared well in the Belmont, so riders will seek to put their horses within a few lengths at the quarter pole.
Justify has to overcome the No. 1 post position and Baffert will be watching closely to see if the colt breaks cleanly from the gate. Once he does, jockey Mike Smith will settle Justify much like Elliott tried with Smarty Jones, a similarly speedy colt.
"It's just about getting the horse in a good, happy, comfortable place, wherever that may be," Smith said. "He's got such a natural high cruising speed and he can just kind of keep on going."
If Justify wins on Saturday, he will have faced the largest field (nine) of any of the previous 12 Triple Crown winners.
He is bidding to join Seattle Slew in 1977 as the only undefeated Triple Crown champions. After not racing as a 2-year-old, Justify has made up for lost time. He's 5-0, having raced for the first time on Feb. 18.
"I couldn't be happier with the way he looks," Baffert said. "He looks no different than the way American Pharoah did coming in here."
Justify won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths and the Preakness by a half-length on sloppy tracks, putting him in position to deliver a second Triple Crown in four years to the struggling sport. A crowd capped at 90,000 is expected at Belmont Park. The forecast calls for 80 degrees and a 20 percent chance of rain.
"I was just surprised on how well he handled the atmosphere at the Derby with the crowd, how he handled it at the Preakness because every time he shows up people start yelling and screaming and he just looks at them like, 'Thank you,'" Baffert said. "Once he enters the building, it'll be like Elvis."