But even the most optimistic projections of Justify's potential could not have accounted for what he accomplished on Saturday, becoming horse racing's 13th Triple Crown victor a mere 111 days after making his racing debut. As 13 unlucky Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners since 1978 came and went from Belmont Park without completing the Triple Crown, the drought morphed from historical quirk to an existential struggle.
Baffert became the second trainer to win the Triple Crown twice, having overseen American Pharoah. And in the process, he gave horse racing a most unexpected surprise: A second Triple Crown victor in the last four years.
For Baffert, victory for Justify would see him become the second trainer ever to have two Triple Crown horses to his name. Baffert won in 2015 with American Pharoah. Only his 52-year old jockey, who has reached the peak of his powers in the twilight of his career, added much sentimental value to the story.
"I was just watching the clock".
According to NY state gaming commission regulations: 'If any horses trained by the same trainer race uncoupled in any race, and one or more of them shall be disqualified for violation of the rules of racing, any other horses entered by that same trainer shall also be disqualified if in the judgment of the stewards such violation prevented any other horse or horses from finishing ahead of the other part of the entry. Baffert also trained Triple Crown victor American Pharoah in 2015.
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"Why would you send a horse that breaks bad and take everybody out, then come back in?" the jockey questioned.
Though the possibility is exceedingly remote, Justify's historic Triple Crown could in theory be vacated if stewards found that Restoring Hope broke racing rules in a way that prevented another horse beating Justify.
After the horse won its first two races, he knew Justify was an fantastic raw talent, capable of history.
"It never gets old", Baffert said.
The trainer said he anxious again when Justify made a move forward in the final turn.
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Kev had a separated shoulder, and then Kyrie goes down in the first, second possession of overtime of Game 1 in The Finals. So we'll see what happens". "It's going to be tougher (to win a title) if he goes to the West", Sherman said.
Restoring Hope, also trained by Baffert, ran interference for the champion while traveling second and deterring any threats by forcing them to go extremely wide.
Justify defied the hard post position along the rail, breaking well and taking the lead within seconds. Nobody did. Smith got the colt into a relaxed rhythm under a moderate pace heading into the backstretch, and he had an easy trip from there.
"Did you see him in the gate, he's standing so still", Smith said.
There were mild bids turning for home. Justify pulled away down the 1,097-yard stretch in front of screaming fans with only 24-1 shot Gronkowski picking off a half-dozen rivals in taking up the chase down the lane.
John Velazquez, who finished in fourth place on Vino Rosso, also saw the move as questionable. Gronkowski (named for the New England Patriots tight end) was second, and Hofburg took show.
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"I think, like all of us, we need Justify to wake up on the wrong side of the bed to have a chance", said Todd Pletcher, trainer of fellow starters Vino Rosso and Noble Indy.