When Justify brought the pipe to Kentucky, it harkened back to 2004, that time that Smarty Jones and Lionheart went to the front and finished 1-2 respectively. With both horses in the 2018 renewal coming back for the Preakness, something similar might happen.
Justify’s win raises a far more wide-ranging point that doesn’t get volleyed around too much: that Bob Baffert is the greatest trainer of three-year-olds of all time.
Because he rarely has older horses (a product of training such great young ones) and never a turf horse (only 1,177 turf starters since 2000 as of this writing. Compare that to 8,005 on dirt), he can’t be considered the greatest all-round trainer, but when it comes to training three-year-old colts—and one special filly—who, aside from D. Wayne Lukas—even comes close?
“He’s right up there,” Lukas said in Art Wilson’s Orange County Register story. “You can put him anywhere you want in the top three or four and you will be right. I mean, I think that what he’s accomplished and what he’s put together … you gotta look at the big picture. Our game is more than just training race horses. It’s managing people, managing horses, developing studs, affecting the breeding industry, causing economic impact in the sales ring, and Bob has done all of that. Bob affects every facet of the industry in some way or another.”
This is also a guy who won his first Derby and most recent Derby 21 years apart, first with Silver Charm and then with Justify. And there’s the matter of a Triple Crown winner thrown in there like in ain’t no thang.
I always thought it would be fun to do a fantasy draft for horses and see whose stable would kick a superlative amount of tail, but why open that up when we could have a Fantasy Draft of Baffert’s best three-year-olds? Justify could very well be on his way to joining the elite Baffert sophomores, but let’s take a dive and rank the 10 Best Baffert Three-Year-Olds of the past 21 years.
This son of Gio Ponti won the King’s Bishop and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as a three-year-old adding a fourth BC Sprint to Baffert’s CV.
Congaree ran a screaming fast opening mile to the Kentucky Derby in 2001 before losing the photo finish for second place in the fastest Derby since Secretariat. We’ll never know what was laced in the dirt that day at Churchill, but Congaree would be far higher on this list were it not for his stablemate later in this list.
8. Lookin At Lucky
He was the best horse of the 2011 Kentucky Derby with the worst post: Post 1. To quote race caller Tom Durkin (in his final Derby call), Lookin At Lucky had to tap on the brakes heading out of the gate. It cost him the race.
He came back two weeks later to win the Preakness Stakes and reassert himself as the best three-year-old of his class. He’d later win the Haskell and be named Champion Three-Year-Old.
7. War Emblem
This horse was sorta like the Allen Iverson of colts: small, scrappy, tough. War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2002 but couldn’t make it three in a row in Baffert’s third try for the Triple Crown in a span of five years.
War Emblem would soon win the Haskell, a race Baffert wins with colonic regularity.
6. Silver Charm
Silver Charm brought Baffert to the scene as we know it. He was Baffert’s first Kentucky Derby winner, first Preakness winner, and first shot at the Triple Crown, something that would be painfully close—too close to call—just a year later in 1998.
5. Real Quiet
Go watch Real Quiet’s Belmont Stakes. … How does he lose!? How is he not the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown after 20 years? It would take another 17 years before that streak got snapped, but Real Quiet had the game and nearly pulled off the feat.
At three, he won the Derby, Preakness and the Santa Anita Derby. He lost by the shortest of margins in the Belmont Stakes, which gives him an edge over Silver Charm and War Emblem.
This is a tough one to slot. Are we still drunk off his 2017 Dubai World Cup win as a four-year-old that it clouds our (my) vision?
In a sense the answer to that question is yes, but as a sophomore, Arrogate exited his allowance condition in California only to break the track record in the Travers Stakes. He took a breather then beat California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was a forgettable season for the Triple Crown with Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Creative Cause winning the three big spring races, but aside from Exaggerator, no other three-year-old took command of the division until Arrogate went mental in the final push for the Eclipse Award.
3. Point Given
Few horses these days run in all three legs of the Triple Crown especially if they tire and finish poorly in Kentucky as Point Given did. This monster went on to win the back end of the Triple Crown sweeping the Preakness and Belmont Stakes after flattening out in the Derby.
He later won the Haskell and the Travers en route to being named Horse of the Year, and, naturally, Champion Three-Year-Old.
She won eight races in her three-year-old season including four Grade 1s. She was so dominant among her own gender that she ran in the Belmont Stakes only to flatten out to seventh after carrying the field around the oval on her back for eight furlongs.
She won the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama Stakes and finished second the Grade 1 Beldame against older fillies and mares.
1. American Pharoah
It has to be American Pharoah, the 12th winner of the Triple Crown who went on to win the Haskell in style, lose the Travers, and then complete the “Grand Slam” by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic like it was a Monday-morning gallop.
American Pharoah was perfectly campaigned and had the equally perfect mix of talent and demeanor, which allowed him to weather 99 percent of all challenges.
Who else could handle that kind of pressure beside Baffert? Few…few indeed.
Now, where will Justify sit? Who knows, but he is unbeaten and if he wins the Preakness he’ll be in this company and his running style seems perfect for yet another Haskell win and maybe a Travers win for the greatest trainer of three-year-old horses the world has ever known.