When Bob Baffert is in a good mood, the jokes, with a sarcastic twang, fly freely.
The Hall of Fame trainer was feeling pretty good the morning of May 20 at Pimlico Race Course.
A day after Justify's foggy trudge through the slop to win the Preakness Stakes (G1), Baffert arrived at the Pimlico stakes barn, stepped out of his SUV, and provided a quip (not the horse) seconds later.
"Is there any gravel around I can walk my horse on?" Baffert joked in reference to Justify's reaction—when he favored his hind left leg the morning after his Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) victory—to the rocky surface outside his barn at Churchill Downs.
During a scheduled morning media session, he reminded the assembled reporters, "Don't forget to turn in all your receipts" for their upcoming expense reports. And when told Ax Man's speed figure in the LARC Sir Barton Stakes was higher than Justify's in the Preakness, he added, "How about Ax Man in the Belmont? ... I knew I should have run him in the Preakness."
It was easy to see why the white-haired trainer was in good spirits. He described Justify as "bright" after the Preakness and compared the Scat Daddy colt's anticipated run in the Belmont Stakes (G1) to watching Usain Bolt in the Olympics.
"He was in all those Olympics, but we still wanted to see him—see if he still has it," Baffert said. "I think the Triple Crown is about, let's see if he still has it."
Regarding the 1 1/2-mile third leg of the Triple Crown, Baffert rolled out the standard horseman's mantra—if all goes well, he'll run.
"I don't see why he wouldn't go to the Belmont as long as he looks like this," Baffert said of the June 9 classic at Belmont Park.
The extended Belmont distance for any 3-year-old is a question mark, but Baffert expressed no concern about stretching out Justify, even though the conditioner admitted, when he first laid eyes on the chestnut during training, he thought the talented colt might be a sprinter.
"None of them really want to go that far, but if you're a superior horse, you can do it," Baffert said. "I've seen horses go a mile and a half, and they never won again. It's kind of a quirky race, but I don't see why he wouldn't handle it."
The comparisons to Baffert's Triple Crown winner American Pharoah started long before the Preakness, they sprung up again Sunday, and they'll continue with regularity in the three-week lead-up to the Belmont.
"We knew (American Pharoah) was brilliant as an early 2-year-old. This guy, when I first started working him, I knew he was brilliant, but we didn't know how far he was gonna go," Baffert said. "When I first saw him I thought, 'Well, it looks like he'll go six furlongs, seven furlongs' because of the way he is built, like a big bull. Every time we run him, he shows us something different."
When Justify will ship to New York is still to be decided, but for now he'll head back to Churchill, where he spent most of his two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. At 5:45 a.m. Sunday morning, before the media horde arrived, Justify walked the shedrow under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes—who called him "a specimen"—and got a quick rinse with a hose before he returned to his stall.
Three hours later, Justify walked onto a trailer and departed Pimlico to catch a plane back to Kentucky.
As for who will take on Justify in the Belmont, only two sets of connections from the Preakness field have expressed interest.
Trainer Steve Asmussen was most emphatic in the moments after the Preakness regarding his ambition for third-place finisher Tenfold—his response to the Belmont question May 19 was "Absolutely. Heck Yes"—and he didn't back away from that opinion Sunday.
"Nope, (nothing has changed). He's still going to have to train impressively between now and then, as he did before this," Asmussen said. "We'll see how much this takes out of him."
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, before he departed with his horses at about 5:40 a.m., said Preakness runner-up Bravazo would likely point to the third leg of the Triple Crown. He'll rest Sporting Chance (sixth) for a potential start at Saratoga Race Course in the July 28 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2).
"(Bravazo) was awful sharp after the race," Lukas said. "I don't know if he was mad he got beat or what. He's a tough horse, and if he'll come back in two weeks, he'll damn sure come back in three."
The connections for the rest of the Preakness runners all reported their horses came out of the race in good order.
Fifth-place finisher Lone Sailor was in a spunky mood Sunday, according to Tom Amoss' assistant and exercise rider, Maurice Sanchez. Amoss said he won't have a plan for the son of Majestic Warrior until the colt returns to Louisville.
"He's on his toes, nipping and biting," Sanchez said. "He's come back good. He's a neat horse."
For seventh-place finisher Diamond King, trainer John Servis said the June 23 Ohio Derby (G3) or the July 14 Indiana Derby (G3) would likely be next.
Trainer Rodolphe Brisset has similar thoughts for last-place finisher Quip—what he called a "back-road" summer campaign in races like the Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia (G3) derbies.
"We may have learned something from him. He's a light-framed horse. Maybe (he's not suited for races close together)," Brisset said. "We know we can have him ready off a layoff. And right now the plan is to race him next year."
The Preakness runners might be heading in different directions, but soon enough the Belmont field will begin to take shape. Against all comers, at least one person is confident—and he has quite a bit of experience in the series.
"(Justify) ran the (Preakness) like American Pharoah did in the Derby. He struggled a little bit. ... The Belmont will probably be easier on him, the way it's set up," Baffert said. "I think his next race will be really big."