Baf­fert’s lat­est Derby win with Jus­tify might be his great­est

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Dan Wolken Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

LOUISVILLE – Around this time ev­ery spring, a new crop of 2-year-olds ar­rives at the Bob Baf­fert barn in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. In a given year, there might be as many as 30 or 40, nearly all of them re­gally bred and many of them pur­chased at auc­tions in the high six- or seven-fig­ure range by own­ers who dream of win­ning the Ken­tucky Derby.

From there, it’s ba­si­cally a num­bers game. Some of them will end up on the Derby trail and per­haps make it to Churchill Downs on the first Satur­day in May. Oth­ers will be too slow to de­velop or get de­railed by in­juries. Some of them in­evitably won’t be able to run a lick.

“Right now we’re get­ting th­ese 2-yearolds com­ing in, and you’re think­ing, which one can take me back to the big show?” Baf­fert said last week. “It’s like a coach say­ing, ‘Hey, I just got the three top re­cruits com­ing in for next year and we’re go­ing to be good.’ That’s what keeps me mo­ti­vated.”

Baf­fert, 65, has won the Ken­tucky Derby five times af­ter Jus­tify’s tri­umph May 5. Re­mark­ably, he has done it for five dif­fer­ent own­ers, all of whom have rec­og­nized his tal­ent in get­ting 3-year-olds ready for this par­tic­u­lar, chal­leng­ing race.

While any trainer would tell you hav­ing the right horse is es­sen­tial, and the vol­ume of tal­ented colts Baf­fert gets gives him a head start on the process, the job he did to get Jus­tify in the win­ner’s cir­cle will go down as per­haps the great­est train­ing feat in his ca­reer.

As Zayat Sta­bles rac­ing man­ager Justin Zayat tweeted af­ter the race: “I’ve said it for years and I’ll say it again. Bob Baf­fert great­est trainer of all time. I don’t think it’s even close any­more! The man knows his horses in­side out, his at­ten­tion to de­tail is sec­ond to none #GOAT.”

Though Zayat might be bi­ased — Baf­fert, af­ter all, helped de­liver him a Triple Crown in 2015 with Amer­i­can Pharoah — the ev­i­dence for his place in his­tory is mount­ing.

Baf­fert’s fifth Derby win moves him into sec­ond place all time, one behind Ben Jones who trained for Calumet Farm dur­ing its era of dom­i­nance in the 1940s. His next Triple Crown race win, which could very well come at the May 19 Preak­ness, will tie him with D. Wayne Lukas for the most all time at 14. His 14 wins in Breed­ers’ Cup races are sec­ond behind Lukas’ 20.

Jus­tify’s per­for­mance in the Derby is yet an­other ex­cla­ma­tion point on a ca­reer that al­ready added a few in re­cent years with Amer­i­can Pharoah break­ing the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015 and Ar­ro­gate burst­ing onto the scene in the sum­mer of 2016, win­ning the Travers (the big­gest post-Triple Crown race for 3year-olds) in Au­gust and then the Breed­ers’ Cup Clas­sic against older horses in­clud­ing the great Cal­i­for­nia Chrome.

Un­til May 5, those were widely con­sid­ered Baf­fert’s most im­pres­sive train­ing jobs. But any­one who un­der­stands the game and the his­tory of the Ken­tucky Derby would have to put Jus­tify’s win right at the top.

A mere 76 days be­fore the Derby, Jus­tify was lit­tle more than the No. 3 horse in the sec­ond race at Santa Anita, re­stricted to horses that had never won a race. Though there had been buzz on the back­stretch and around the Baf­fert barn about what kind of horse this could be based on his morn­ing work­outs, no­body thinks a horse mak­ing its first start on Feb. 18 is go­ing to end up in the Ken­tucky Derby.

More than 100 years of his­tory says there just isn’t enough time to get ready to run 1 1⁄4 miles, which is be­yond what 4 many of th­ese horses are ca­pa­ble of even un­der the best of cir­cum­stances.

But Baf­fert had an am­bi­tious plan to thread the nee­dle: Win the debut, come back in three weeks in a 1-mile al­lowance, then go into the deep wa­ter in the Santa Anita Derby.

“This colt was re­ally spe­cial as a year­ling,” said El­liott Walden, the pres­i­dent and CEO of rac­ing for WinS­tar Farm, which bought Jus­tify at auc­tion for $500,000. “I have been asked about how we bought him a lot. He just stood out. Like Bob said, he’s kind of like LeBron. And I got ex­cited when Bob told me that he was go­ing to run him — and he had a plan to get to the Derby.”

At that point, Baf­fert thought Jus­tify would be his sec­ond-stringer for the Triple Crown races. McKinzie had been the star of his barn, win­ning the Grade 1 Los Alami­tos Fu­tu­rity in De­cem­ber and an early Derby prep at Santa Anita in Jan­uary. But on March 10, McKinzie had to be taken out of train­ing be­cause of a bruised hock.

It was a re­minder that for all of Baf­fert’s suc­cess, he’s had heart­break, too. Last year Baf­fert thought he had an­other po­ten­tial Derby win­ner on his hands in Mas­tery, who was a bril­liant 4-for-4 but took a bad step just af­ter cross­ing the wire in the San Felipe Stakes and suf­fered a ca­reer-end­ing condy­lar frac­ture of his front left an­kle.

“In this busi­ness, if you have a good 3-year-old and you get that call, it just rips your soul,” Baf­fert said. “It’s a lot of fun. But there’s some times you have to re­ally — you have to go through it. The only thing that made me re­ally get through it, I knew I had this big red son of a gun sit­ting in the barn that looks like he could be pretty good him­self.”

That son of a gun was Jus­tify, and in any other hands we might not have even known the name to­day, which is a re­mark­able stroke of luck con­sid­er­ing WinS­tar sends its 3-year-olds to a va­ri­ety of train­ers.

In fact, even in this Derby, WinS­tar owned a piece of Audi­ble and Noble Indy (trained by Todd Pletcher) and owns a horse named Quip, which is a can­di­date for the Bel­mont un­der the tute­lage of Rodolphe Bris­set. WinS­tar’s 2016 Bel­mont win­ner Cre­ator was trained by Steven As­mussen.

Al­though Walden said he couldn’t re­call ex­actly why Jus­tify went to Baf­fert, the part­ners WinS­tar took on in 2016, in­clud­ing the China Horse Club con­glom­er­ate, wanted some horses to go out West with Baf­fert.

That wasn’t just a good de­ci­sion, but a his­toric one.

MARK ZEROF/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Mike Smith rode Jus­tify to the Ken­tucky Derby win­ner’s cir­cle for white-haired Bob Baf­fert just 76 days af­ter Jus­tify’s first-ever race.

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