Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Justify resumed training at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning during the special 7:30-7:40 a.m. (ET) period set aside for Belmont Stakes (G1) contenders.
The Bob Baffert-trained chestnut galloped 1 3/8 miles under regular exercise rider Humberto Gomez, returning to the track for the first time since taking the May 19 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
“We definitely saw what we needed to see,” assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said. “He had a good bounce to his step and he was very happy out there. Bob told me to make sure he has a nice and easy first day back galloping. He went about 1 3/8 miles and seemed to enjoy it.
“It makes it very easy for us to have a horse capable of (rebounding quickly off 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.
“I try not to think too much about the Triple Crown,” Barnes added. “I just try to focus on the next day of training. I’m sure I’ll start thinking about it when we ship to Belmont. My biggest job is to keep Justify happy.”
Barnes indicated that Baffert will return to Churchill later this weekend. Justify is scheduled to fly to New York on June 6.
Justify is campaigned by the same ownership group – WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners – as Florida Derby (G1) victor Audible, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness. Trainer Todd Pletcher has been freshening the bay son of Into Mischief for the Belmont Stakes, but the colt’s participation in the third jewel of the Triple Crown is in flux.
“I’m going up to watch (Audible) work, then we’ll sit down with Todd and probably have a decision next week,” WinStar President and CEO Elliott Walden said. “I think (Audible would) be big competition. But I think it’s Justify’s race to lose.”
Audible is expected to work Friday at Belmont Park in the same set as another Pletcher charge headed to the “Test of the Champion.” Vino Rosso captured the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct prior to a ninth-placing in the Kentucky Derby and is probable to line up in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
If Audible goes in the Belmont, it wouldn’t be the first time Justify has run against horses with similar ownership. He faced off against that rival in the Kentucky Derby as well as the Rodolphe Brisset-trained Quip, whose owners include WinStar and China Horse Club, in the Preakness Stakes. Quip ended up last in the Preakness, beaten 45 1/2 lengths by Justify.
Prior to the Preakness, Walden said Justify needed to beat all comers to win the Triple Crown. But with two-thirds of the prestigious sweep now in the record books, the decision to run against Justify has become more difficult.
“It’s different when you’ve won two out of the three rather than one out of the three,” Walden admitted. “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.
“The horse looks good though, doesn’t he?” Walden commented as Justify galloped by. “His energy level the day after was incredible. He wasn’t in the back of the stall hanging his head. He was out front.”
Bravazo and Tenfold, who finished second and third, respectively, in the Preakness, also exercised during the special training period under the Twin Spires on Thursday as they gear up for a rematch with Justify.
Bravazo had a routine gallop for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“He was really into it,” Lukas said of Bravazo. “He rolled around there, very strong. I didn’t have any doubt. He was wanting to get out here before they opened it (following the 7 a.m. track renovation break). So, we sent him around there.
“I thought he’d run really big,” Lukas said of Bravazo’s Preakness. “I thought I had him right where I wanted him. I didn’t think I got a lot out of the two previous races, the Risen Star (G2) (victory) and the (eighth-placing in the) Louisiana Derby (G2).
“The Kentucky Derby kind of set him where I wanted him. I wish I would have had a little better race before the Kentucky Derby. I think I’d have been a little closer. I don’t think I’d have beaten Justify, but I’d have been closer (than finishing sixth). But he ran well enough in the Derby to give me at least a little bit of confidence that we would make it interesting.
“I really felt Justify was the horse to beat, that he was the best horse in the Preakness – and he was. But we got a little bit closer. Steve (Asmussen) got a little bit closer, and Chad Brown (with Derby runner-up Good Magic) did the heavy lifting for us (by pressing Justify before finishing fourth).
“I like his physique,” Lukas added about Justify: “He’s just a big strong horse that gets over the ground. I was impressed with him this morning. When I took mine out, I was right in front of him. I told Jimmy when he came with him, I said, ‘I went in front of you because it will probably be the only time I’m in front of you.’ He laughed. But he’s got what it takes: a pedigree, great depth to his heart, and he’s got tactical speed.
“He’s the best horse. We still have him to deal with, very much so. We could get another (Triple Crown) right in a row and they’ll bronze Bob (Baffert) and put him in the paddock at Santa Anita. They already have a couple of statues, Whittingham and Shoemaker. I don’t know why they don’t have Bob. I think that’s coming.”
Tenfold galloped Thursday after jogging on Wednesday for conditioner Steve Asmussen. The Curlin’s colt made just his second stakes appearance, and only fourth overall career start, when going in the Preakness. His previous stakes effort resulted in a fifth-placing in the Arkansas Derby (G1).
“We started when we did because we thought it was best for him. We’ve spaced what we’ve done because we think it’s best for him,” Asmussen said. “This will be a true test to that, off his lifetime best wheeling back in three weeks when he doesn’t have a bunch of races in him.
“But I love his attitude. It’s very consistent. He’s such a beautiful mover. High hopes, the sky is the limit. We’ve got a tremendous amount of confidence in him. I’m very pleased with how he came out of the race; beautiful animal. I think what we’ve seen is just the edge of it. Who he is right now and who he’ll be in 2 1/2 weeks I think is nothing compared to who he will be next year. I think it’s all ahead of him.”
Racing fans can watch the Derby winner and his fellow Belmont hopefuls training during the special period at Churchill from the first floor of the facility free of charge. The track will open its Paddock Gate entrance between 7-8 a.m. each morning through June 4. Guests may park free of charge in the Orange and Black Lots outside of the Paddock Gate.
Video of the exercises will be shown on the Big Board and infield video screens at Churchill, and those unable to attend can watch an online live stream of the daily exercises with commentary at KentuckyDerby.com/Works from 7:20-7:45 a.m. through June 4, thanks to TwinSpires.com.