As Bob Baffert ambled outside the shedrow of Churchill Downs' Barn 33 the morning of May 14, the otherwise minor shift in scenery caught his eye.
It was a detail that could easily have been missed given the bustle of onlookers already testing the diligence of the patient, but firm security guard. But the magnitude of its presence wasn't something the Hall of Fame trainer was going to let go unnoticed, even in the whirlwind that is his current reality.
"They already have the new sign up there," Baffert said, as he gestured toward the placards detailing the Kentucky Derby (G1) winners.
Indeed, the freshly-pressed signage declaring Justify the 144th winner of the first leg of the Triple Crown was there to greet the Hall of Fame conditioner in his first morning back in Louisville since his memorable stay the first weekend of May. What hasn't changed, according to his eye, was the son of Scat Daddy who prompted the need to clear a new spot on the wall.
With Baffert in attendance and a gaggle of media looking on, Kentucky Derby winner Justify continued his preparations for the May 19 Preakness Stakes (G1) with an energetic 1 1/2-mile gallop around the Churchill Downs main track Monday.
After he backtracked and took things easy in his first pass down the backstretch, Justify picked up the pace and got some more air into his lungs his next time by, and looked like a horse who wanted to do more as he readies for the 1 3/16-mile test awaiting him in Baltimore. As Baffert further evaluated the colt upon returning to the barn, he marveled at how well the unbeaten chestnut has held his flesh and energy following his 2 1/2-length triumph over champion Good Magic in the 10-furlong classic.
"He went around there and he looks no different than he did before the Kentucky Derby," Baffert said of the horse who brought him his fifth victory in the first leg of the Triple Crown. "We're pretty happy with where we are right now. He looks healthy. He didn't lose an ounce of weight, which is very important.
"The next day (after the Derby), he was so bright and so full of energy that I was pretty impressed myself. Usually all my Derby winners—it takes them about five days to fully snap out of it. But he was pretty sharp the whole time. You could tell today he wanted to go faster than the rider wanted. To me that tells me he's still on go."
Justify's constitution is a large reason why he has been able to go from maiden winner to classic hero in the span of 76 days.
Baffert cracked that when the red-coated baby first came into his care in the fall, he had the look of a turf sprinter. That big engine of Justify's not only allowed the colt to come into hand quickly once training started getting serious in advance of his debut Feb. 18, but it has not shown Baffert any signs of being close to depleted.
"I sort of ran him into shape," Baffert said. "In about 75 days, he did all of that and he is still this big, massive horse that he is. But he's light on his feet and he can take a lot. He's shown how tough he is. To do what he did in such a short period of time is pretty remarkable, especially beating the field that he did, going as fast as he did early."
The bruised hind left heel Justify was found to have in the aftermath of the Derby is something his connections say is well behind them. Baffert indicated Monday the colt now has a full shoe on that foot, along with some Equilox for added support.
"I would have stayed (in Louisville) all week if I thought it was serious," Baffert said.
Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing, Justify is slated to ship to Baltimore May 16 and will take his first spin around Pimlico Race Course the following morning.
"We knew he was something special from day one," Baffert said. "My job was just to make sure I didn't mess it up."
Video courtesy of Jennie Rees