The Greatest Coach in Sports Is Behind Justify's Triple Crown Bid

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2018

With Justify, Bob Baffert is on the brink of winning a second Triple Crown.
With Justify, Bob Baffert is on the brink of winning a second Triple Crown.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Is it possible that the greatest coach in sports today has never trained a two-legged athlete?

Don't laugh. Horse racing's Bob Baffert could make that a legitimate debate on Saturday if he wins a historic second Triple Crown when Justify takes aim at the Belmont Stakes.

The ivory-haired trainer who, by all accounts, has genius-level horse sense, also has plenty more in common with Bill Belichick than just their initials.

Baffert-trained horses have dominated Triple Crown races for more than two decades, since he won his first two in 1997. That's even longer than Belichick's New England Patriots have ruled the NFL postseason. It's also longer than Gregg Popovich's Spurs have been perennial NBA contenders or Nick Saban's Alabama teams have been college football juggernauts.

But in horse racing, a trainer has only one year to capitalize on an animal's potential for greatness. The horse either claims victories in Triple Crown races as a three-year-old or it doesn't. That age limitation means no coach in football, basketball, soccer or any other sport has as much turnover or as small a window to reach stardom.

For Baffert, every season begins with a roster of unproven rookies who have never been tested in front of the roaring crowds of 100,000-plus that flock to Triple Crown events.

Like many modern coaches, Baffert is also essentially a CEO—the guy in charge of the entire operation. But unlike coaches in major sports, he doesn't answer to one owner. Instead, there's a long list of owners that includes numerous billionaires and plenty of Saudi princes.

He monitors the diet and weight of his 1,200-pound beasts, and he also watches every stride galloped by their powerful legs that strain tendons and ligaments to the maximum. And he's his own scouting department, which is no small task, considering the annual crop of foals in North America tops 20,000. On any given day, Baffert's athletes might be competing anywhere from Santa Anita Park in California to Aqueduct Racetrack in New York.

"Our game is more than just training race horses," said Baffert's rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas, per the Orange County Register's Art Wilson "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."

If Justify wins on Saturday, the 65-year-old Baffert will claim his 15th Triple Crown race and break a tie with the 82-year-old Lukas for the most all-time. 

Justify gave Baffert a fifth victory at the Kentucky Derby.
Justify gave Baffert a fifth victory at the Kentucky Derby.John Minchillo/Associated Press

A victory by Justify in the 1 ½-mile test—the longest Triple Crown race—would also add a second Triple Crown to the one Baffert won with American Pharoah in 2015, giving him the most impressive resume of any trainer in the sport's history. Only James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, way back in the 1930s, had two horses survive racing's greatest test unscathed.

Justify also would join 1977 champion Seattle Slew as the only other horse to be undefeated when he won the Triple Crown.

Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas are widely recognized as the two greatest trainers of this era.
Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas are widely recognized as the two greatest trainers of this era.Ed Reinke/Associated Press

The notion of any trainer winning two Triple Crowns in four years would have been the stuff of miracles just a few years ago. A 37-year drought of Triple Crown winners had some thinking the sport's greatest achievement was an impossible task, and that the journey of three races at three different tracks in five weeks had to be made easier.

A longer break between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes was considered, but traditionalists said that would mean future Triple Crown winners would have an asterisk next to their accomplishment.

"I said, 'Man, I hope they don't change it,'" Baffert said, per the Associated Press (h/t NBC Sports). "I want to do it before they change it because it won't mean anything."

Then he won it the old-school way with American Pharoah, and he will play by those rules again on Saturday at the 150th Belmont.

If Baffert were a coach in another sport, it's easy to envision him being a hard-nosed taskmaster like Saban. Unlike many modern trainers, Baffert believes in demanding the most from his athletes in workouts.

"We don't train scared," Baffert told Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier Journal. "They're athletes. They have to train. You have to give them every opportunity. So when they go out there, they're going to run hard. Fitness is so key to me. I want to make sure that (they're) fit, so they don't get tired when they hit the stretch. If they get in a battle, I want them to hit another gear."

Baffert doesn't coddle his horses. If he were a baseball manager, he'd probably go with a four-man pitching rotation. If he were in football, there would be no shortage of two-a-days.

But there will be obstacles for Justify.

The field will include three "new shooters," horses that didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes, and thus will enter the starting gate with legs far fresher than Justify's, who will be competing in his sixth race since his Feb. 18 debut.

Rested horses have undone Triple Crown quests before, including in 2014 when Tonalist's win at the Belmont ruined California Chrome's bid. Triple Crown events readily accept late arrivals. Entrants move from the sidelines to marquee events without paying their dues. Just imagine how Popovich would react if another team sat out the early rounds of the NBA Playoffs only to show up in the Finals.

Justify also will be in the No. 1 post position, the most dreaded place to break from the gate, where he can be pinned to the rail. But that's less of a concern in the Belmont than in the shorter Derby and Preakness. The 1 ½-mile distance allows more time to sort out any early disadvantage, and five of the 12 Triple Crown winners did indeed start from the No. 1 spot, including Secretariat.

Even if Justify doesn't become the sixth,it still will be a historic year for Baffert. Justify's victory in the Kentucky Derby was the first by a horse that didn't race as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.

Baffert has trained five of the 11 horses that have won the Derby and the Preakness since 1997. His career winnings top $276 million. His five Derby victories rank second all-time and his seven wins at the Preakness are tied for first.

But a second Triple Crown? Even Belichick would have to feel some envy.

           

Tom Weir covered 20 Triple Crown races as a columnist for USA Today.

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