Triple Crown hopeful Justify returned to training Thursdaymorning at Churchill Downs following four days of walking around the shedrow after his half-length victory over Bravazo in Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.
Justify went to the track at the 7:30 a.m. slot that Churchill Downs has reserved for Belmont Stakes horses. Also on the track during that 10-minute period was Bravazo and Tenfold, who was third in the Preakness by a total of three-quarters of a length.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner – unbeaten in five starts this year and only the second Derby winner who didn't race as a 2-year-old – is vying to give trainer Bob Baffert his second Triple Crown victory in three years, with American Pharoah in 2015 becoming the 12th horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Justify has identical ownership to Audible, the Florida Derby winner who was third in the Derby by a nose to Good Magic. Both Justify and Audible are owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club International, with the Louisville-based Starlight Racing partnership and Head of Plains Partners subsequently buying minority shares in their racing but not breeding careers. Audible is trained by two-time Belmont Stakes winner Todd Pletcher, and the ownership is facing a tough decision as to whether that colt runs in the Triple Crown finale or not.
In the past, Pletcher has had his horses skip the Preakness to concentrate on the Belmont Stakes at his home track. That history has prompted questions as to the direction WinStar will choose, as Audible's entry could potentially knock their own horse out of the Triple Crown.
“I'm going up to watch [Audible] work, then we'll sit down with Todd and probably have a decision next week,” said WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden, who in 1998 trained Victory Gallop, the nose winner in the Belmont Stakes over the Baffert-trained Triple Crown aspirant Real Quiet.
“I think he'd [Audible] be big competition,” Walden added. “But I think it's Justify's race to lose.”
Arkansas Derby runner-up Quip, trained by Rodolphe Brisset and whose owners include WinStar and China Horse Club, ran in the Preakness, albeit finishing last. Going into the Preakness, Walden said that if Justify is to win the Triple Crown, he would need to beat all comers, including Quip. But he acknowledged Thursday, “It's different when you've won two out of the three rather than one out of the three. But at the same time, I do feel like you cannot manufacture a Triple Crown; that it's either going to happen or it's not. So, we'll see.”
As Justify galloped by, Walden said, “The horse looks good though, doesn't he? His energy level the day after was incredible. He wasn't in the back of the stall hanging his head. He was out front.”
Jimmy Barnes, Baffert's chief assistant who is overseeing Justify's training on the road, accompanied the heavy Belmont Stakes favorite to the track while on his pony, Sunny.
“He had a good bounce in his step,” Barnes said. “Very happy. We just took it easy with him out there, went about a mile and three-eighths. Bob just said give him a nice, easy first-day back gallop, which we did. He seemed to really enjoy it.
“It makes it very easy for us to have a horse capable of doing that,” Barnes said of Justify's ability to rebound quickly out of a race. “You want them to eat constantly. This horse carries his weight very well and he's just made it very easy for me.”
The Derby and Preakness were both played out over very sloppy tracks.
“The horse does run well in the mud, but you ought to see him on a dry track,” Barnes said. “You guys haven't seen him on a dry track. I'm waiting to see him on a dry track myself. But with the mud, you never know what to expect. Sometimes races don't pan out the way you'd think they will. But for him, it's been stay clean.”
Justify is scheduled to fly to New York on Wednesday, June 6, Barnes said. He expects Baffert to arrive in Louisville early next week.
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