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Travers for Justify? Seems like a long shot

Travers for Justify? Seems like a long shot

What we do know: Bob Baffert and WinStar Farm definitely want to race the Triple Crown winner some more.
Travers for Justify? Seems like a long shot
It's a long shot to think that trainer Bob Baffert will be walking Triple Crown winner Justify in the barn area at Saratoga.
Photographer: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

ELMONT -- Here we go again.

For the second time in four years, Saratoga Race Course fans will be gathered around the New York Racing Association like the townfolk in "Hoosiers" for a meeting with Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, an outsider who had been hired as the new coach of the Hickory High boys' basketball team.

The folks didn't give a lick about what sort of defense or strategy coach Dale preferred, but "If we don't get Jimmy Chitwood back playin' ball, we don't have a prayer. "

This time, the part of the superstar Jimmy Chitwood will be played by Justify, who became the 13th Triple Crown winner by taking the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

Trainer Bob Baffert and WinStar Farm racing manager Elliott Walden both said on Sunday that they want Justify to resume racing this year, which puts the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes squarely in the crosshairs, at least if you're a Saratoga fan. Their demand of NYRA will be to just do it. Make it happen.

It's never nearly that simple in this sport, of course.

The day after American Pharoah won the 2015 Triple Crown, I put very long odds on his coming to Saratoga, based on a variety of factors.

Ultimately, the desire of owner Ahmed Zayat to run American Pharoah at Saratoga overwhelmed whatever reservations trainer Bob Baffert may have had. Then American Pharoah won the Haskell at Monmouth Park and got beat by Keen Ice in the Travers, before winning the Breeders' Cup Classic and a Horse of the Year Eclipse Award that was clinched in the Belmont.

We're going to again put long odds on Justify running in the Travers. I have been accused of being contrarian, but that (usually) isn't the case.

Either way, I expect the Justify camp to keep their cards close to the vest throughout the decision-making process. For one thing, you're not doing yourselves any favors by publicizing long-term campaign plans for a racehorse. It's one thing for someone like Schenectady's Don Lucarelli, who grew up at Saratoga Race Course, to say winning the Travers is his ultimate goal as an owner (he has a minor share in Justify). It's another for Baffert and Walden to say "We're going to do A then B then C."

As always, there are a few options on the calendar if you're going to keep a 3-year-old running against 3-year-olds. For a horse of Justify's caliber, that means some combination, perhaps even just one race before the Breeders' Cup, between the July 29 Haskell, Aug. 25 Travers and Sept. 22 Pennsylvania Derby.

The July 28 Jim Dandy is Saratoga's traditional steppingstone to the Travers.

Keep in mind, Baffert's top 3-year-old on the Kentucky Derby trail was McKinzie, before Justify had even started in a stakes race, much less won the Triple Crown, and he's supposed to be ready for a late summer return after missing the Santa Anita Derby with a minor injury.

If you want to get McKinzie back in the picture, it doesn't make sense to run him against Justify. Baffert has said he wants to point McKinzie to the Haskell once he gets him back into serious training, and maybe the Travers would be a logical spot after that.

One avenue for Justify, who will spend a week or two at Churchill Downs (site of this year's Breeders' Cup) before returning to California, could be the Aug. 18 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. But that would put him in against older horses in what would be just his seventh career start.

"We never get ahead of ourselves," Baffert said. "Everybody thinks I'm so opposed to Saratoga, but I really do like it there."

No matter where Justify winds up, Baffert wants to keep him in the public eye in some capacity. As he did with American Pharoah, he brought Justify out of his stall at barn 1 at Belmont Sunday morning so the media could get a look at him. He's more highstrung than American Pharoah, so the grassy grazing area next to the barn did not become a veritable petting zoo like it did in 2015, but Justify didn't seem to mind the attention, nibbling on the rim of a TV camera lens at one point.

"I get to touch him every day, touch him, pet him, but I wanted people to see his presence. You can tell people appreciate them when they get up close," Baffert said.

"When I first got in the business, I remember seeing Cigar. I'll never forget when Cigar came to Del Mar. They shipped him down there, there was a police escort, and it was huge. They closed the track for him to train, and I remember running out there with my brother Bill, and I was like a little kid. I told my brother, 'If I ever have a horse like that, I would share him with people."

Baffert said that, for a horse who had three hard races in five weeks, Justify was energetic and alert, and was still holding his weight, but he wants to see how he recovers from the Belmont in a week or so before evaluating the resumption of race training.

"They tip you off," he said. "I remember Pharoah, when we took him back to Churchill, you could tell he'd lost some weight, but he was a lighter horse. But you really don't know."

In the meantime, he was gratified to have delivered another superstar to the fan base.

"The fans that show up, the pressure is letting down the fans," Baffert said. "A lot of people came, they wanted to see this, they're screaming at their TVs ... to me, it's about them enjoying this horse. America gets enthralled with this horse, and that's what racing is all about. People love history being made in sports."

Whether Justify's historical record will include the Travers is still off in the distance.

If it was left to Baffert's young son, Bode, Justify won't go anywhere near Saratoga, despite the fact that Baffert has won the last two Travers, with West Coast and Arrogate. American Pharoah's loss still stings.

At a breakfast press conference during which the 13th Triple Crown banner was unfurled on the fourth floor of the Belmont clubhouse, Baffert redirected a reporter's Travers question to Bode in the audience. The kid took the Fifth.

"The bagel's delicious," he said.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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