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Not only did Justify give the 65-year-old trainer his second Triple Crown in four years on Saturday, but for the second straight year, Baffert came away with a win in every race he had an entry on the day of the Belmont Stakes.
In his teens, he worked as a jockey for $100 a day in informal Quarter Horse races on the outskirts of Nogales. He moved from there to racing at legalized tracks, scoring his first victory at age 17 in 1970, according to online sources.
Baffert graduated from the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program with a Bachelor of Science degree, got married, and began training quarter horses at a Prescott, Arizona, farm and racing at Prescott Downs.
By age 20, he had developed a reputation as a trainer and was hired by others to run their stables. In the 1980s, Baffert moved to California and worked at Los Alamitos Race Course, where he switched to training Thoroughbreds. He got his first big break in 1992 when he won his first Breeder’s Cup race with Thirty Slews. He became the leading money-winning trainer in the United States four times.
Abel Tasman won the $750,000 Ogden Phipps — with jockey Mike Smith, who also rode Justify to the big win — and then Hopportunity took the $400,000 Brooklyn Invitational. Baffert had a second horse in the Belmont — Restoring Hope — that ran behind Justify at the start before fading to eighth.
“To me, Abel Tasman and Hopportunity, when they set the stage early, I thought this is going to be good,” Baffert said. “I was going to bring four (horses) but I didn’t want to buck those odds of, like last year. But I said, I don’t know, three is a good number.”
“But they all ran well, but that’s all you can ask for, that your horses do well, but they still have to show up. It was just a great day, went smooth.”
Last year, Baffert won four races with Mor Spirit (Metropolitan Handicap), Abel Tasman (Acorn), American Anthem (Woody Stephens) and West Coast (Easy Goer).
“We have the most tremendous team of people working for me,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “We got Jimmy Barnes, probably if they had an assistant trainer’s Hall of Fame, he’d be the first one inducted.”
Justify’s victory moved Baffert past D. Wayne Lukas to become the winningest trainer in Triple Crown races with 15. Baffert came into the year with 12 Triple Crown race wins before tying James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons for second place with Justify’s victory at the Kentucky Derby and then tying Lukas last month at the Preakness.
Baffert joined Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to oversee two Triple Crown winners. Fitzsimmons did it with Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.
Baffert fell short the first three times he brought a horse to Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown — with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). Now, three years after American Pharoah ended the sport’s 37-year drought, he did it again.
“He was showing me the same signs (as American Pharoah),” Baffert said of Justify. “He was showing me the brilliance, superior horse. He could have won every race on the undercard today.”
Baffert has been doing enough of that lately without him.