It was one year ago on Belmont Stakes day that Bob Baffert and Mike Smith put on one of the great shows in horse racing history. They won everything — except the Belmont, only because Baffert did not have a horse in the race.
Smith won five stakes that day, four on horses trained by Baffert. Smith's mounts earned nearly $2 million in purses for the horses' owners. Even though Baffert did not run a horse in the 2017 Triple Crown, he and Smith were on their way to career years.
By year's end, Baffert's horses had won $21.1 million and Smith had ridden horses that earned $20.5 million. Since the start of 2016, Baffert, 65, and Smith, 52, have been horse racing's most deadly combination with 27 graded-stakes wins, including 17 in Grade I.
So why not the Triple Crown together on Justify, who will be heavily favored in Saturday's Belmont Stakes?
It is actually preposterous that they are both here with a horse that did not run his first race until Feb. 18. Only Baffert would have even have imagined such a scenario, as Kentucky Derby plans typically start in the previous summer or fall. And once he knew what he had after that first start, Baffert made the call to the jockey known as Big Money Mike.
"So he hadn't even run yet,'' said Elliott Walden, who represents WinStar Farm, one of Justify's owners. "It was kind of the day before he ran his first race. And [Baffert] had already kind of picked out his second race, which was an allowance race at Santa Anita.''
Actually he had mapped out his path to the Derby. Now, here they all are, with the trainer to the stars center-stage again.
"My father, he's the one that got me into this thing and he's the one who just had the love and the passion,'' Baffert said. "He loved animals and he had horses and he started doing this. … I just thank God that he decided that he was going to buy a couple of quarter-horse mares, breed them into some racehorses and start doing this. … At the ripe age of 11 years old, I would tag along with him everywhere and I just got the bug. …
"He would have loved to have been a trainer, but he had to raise seven kids and he had to work, so he couldn't do it. So, he let me sort of take over the horses. I didn't learn from anybody. … It's like somebody learning the guitar by ear.''
The trainer learned well enough that he is going for a second Triple Crown three years after winning his first with American Pharoah.
"He's a very good person, a kind person,'' fellow trainer Dale Romans said. "He does a lot of things people don't know about him.''
When Romans' colt Keen Ice upset Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, the first call he got that night was from Baffert, congratulating him on the win.
If Justify wins, this will be a win not just for Smith, Baffert and the owners, but a win also for the sport — perhaps not as monumental as Pharoah's because of that 37 years between Triple Crowns, but plenty big enough for a major celebration.
"American Pharoah brought a lot of excitement to the sport," Baffert said. As a sports fan, "you want to see the Golden State Warriors; you want to see Steph Curry; you want to see the superstars.''
Justify and Pharoah might have similar talent. Not so, their personalities.
"Pharoah loved human contact," Baffert said right after Justify arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday afternoon. "This guy will let you love on him for about four seconds, and that's it. He bit me when I was walking him around."
But, just like American Pharoah, Justify runs fast and far.
New York Racing Association officials decided a few years ago to make the Belmont Stakes Day card one of America's best. And they have succeeded again with eight other graded stakes, featuring some of America's best horses, a card that will be second only to Breeders' Cup Saturday in overall quality.
Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl, who might be at Parx on Sept. 22 for the $1 million Cotillion, will run in the Acorn. Abel Tasman, last year's Kentucky Oaks winner and champion 3-year-old filly, is entered in the Ogden Phipps. Pure Sensation, who has won the grass dash stakes at Parx several times, will run in the Jaipur.