Bob Baffert’s return to Belmont Stakes highlights exciting close to Triple Crown series

Tribune Content Agency

The sky over Belmont Park had cleared, gone was the orange haze from Canadian wildfires that forced state officials to suspend racing and training two days before the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Horse racing was to resume in a few hours as Bob Baffert hopped out of his black Escalade and pointed up.

“The weather here is better than California,” Baffert said. “We haven’t seen the sun in two weeks, it’s cloudy and gloomy there.”

Friday was Baffert’s first time back at Belmont Park since 2018, when Justify completed his bid to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown. It was crazy back then, with about 50 members of the media breathlessly awaiting every utterance from the Hall of Fame trainer.

On Friday morning, there were only three reporters and a television cameraman. Baffert did three separate interviews rather than a collective one. He had the time.

“It feels good to be back here,” Baffert said. “Belmont is nice and it’s going to be big (Saturday). It’s exciting. The classics are exciting. To be part of it with a horse that has a chance, the excitement is there.”

Clearly the media crowd was missing because there is no Triple Crown on the line. In, fact, no horse has won two legs of the series since Justify. If anyone but Baffert’s horse, National Treasure, wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, it will be a streak of 16 races with different winners starting with Justify.

“No one is going for a Triple Crown this year,” Baffert said. “The Triple Crown makes all the difference. It’s history being made and it’s difficult. You learn to appreciate it.”

This year’s Belmont is probably the best of the Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby was overshadowed by a spike in horse fatalities and scratches. The Preakness Stakes did not have an impressive array of horses. Most of the Belmont attention is focused on Forte, who was the Derby favorite before Kentucky state officials scratched the colt on race day because of a bruised hoof. He is the morning line favorite for the Belmont at 5-2 odds. Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, is the second pick at 3-1 while Angel of Empire, who was third in the Derby, is at 7-2.

Baffert’s top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, has been supervising the training of Preakness winner National Treasure as Baffert didn’t arrive in New York until Thursday night after a six-hour flight delay.

His late arrival also helps partially explain why he has been absent from Belmont Park for so long.

“Usually, we would be at Churchill Downs,” Baffert said. “When we come from Churchill, we come in on a Wednesday. But being that I wasn’t at Churchill, but was coming from California, I came in later. If I was at Churchill, I would be here earlier.”

The reason Baffert was not at Churchill is a two-year ban imposed by the track after Medina Spirit tested positive for a medication banned on race day after he won the Kentucky Derby in 2021. After it was clear that Medina Spirit was not going to run in the Belmont, the New York Racing Assn. banned Baffert for two years, later reduced to one, even though he has never had a horse fail a drug test in the state.

“We’re still dealing with that right now,” Baffert said of the ongoing litigation. “We’re still in the process of wondering why they did that. We’re at the bridge right now and haven’t crossed it yet. I just want to clear my name.”

Last year during the Triple Crown series, Baffert was serving a 90-day suspension from Kentucky, and honored by all states, for the Medina Spirit violation.

Baffert’s Churchill ban is set to expire on July 3. For the last two years, Baffert’s Derby horses were transferred to Tim Yakteen, his former assistant. National Treasure was moved to Yakteen this year to run in the Santa Anita Derby but his fourth-place finish wasn’t good enough to get him in the Derby field. After the race, the colt was transferred back to Baffert.

“Just getting to the Derby is tough,” Baffert said. “Then, if a horse doesn’t run well in the Derby, they say he’s just tired. And the people are tired, too. It’s still going to be an exciting race, the Belmont is very important to the fans in New York. It’s tradition.

“All the good horses used to run in all the big races. Now the trainer wants to pick their spots, give their horse a month off. … Look, there are only nine horses (in Saturday’s race). We’ve had three weeks and there are still only nine horses. … It’s the classics and the Breeders’ Cup that keeps this sport going.”

As the 2023 Triple Crown series comes to a close on Saturday, the sport hopes to come out of the shadow of controversies and point itself to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November.