Justify: The Latest Success Story for Baffert and Smith

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 24th, 2018

Question: What do Justify, Arrogate, Abel Tasman, West Coast, Drefong, McKinzie, Mastery, and Mor Spirit all have in common?

Answer: They all won Grade 1 races for trainer and jockey , arguably the most powerful trainer/jockey duo in U.S. racing over the last two years. Baffert and Smith have been in the headlines as of late thanks to their success with the unbeaten Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify, but this is simply the culmination of a partnership that has been on a roll since 2016.

Individually, Baffert and Smith have enjoyed careers that most in the sport can only dream of. Baffert reached the pinnacle of the sport by training American Pharoah to win the 2015 Triple Crown, while Mike Smith is best known for his long run of success board the legendary Zenyatta. Both Baffert and Smith have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, so it comes as no surprise that when they team up, incredible things can (and have) happened.

Smith has ridden for Baffert in the past, but it was on August 27th, 2016 that they launched into a streak of success that shows no signs of slowing down. On a sunny afternoon at Saratoga, Smith guided the Baffert-trained runners Arrogate and Drefong to win the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I), which marked the first time in some 2 ½ years that they had teamed up to win a graded stakes race.

What has followed is almost impossible to comprehend. Starting on that memorable day at Saratoga and continuing through May 19th, Baffert and Smith have teamed up to compete in 63 North American graded stakes races, winning a staggering 27 of them while compiling an other-worldly 43% win rate.

The list of races they’ve won reads like a list of the most prestigious races in the country—they’ve won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), Pegasus World Cup (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Forego Stakes (gr. I), Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I), Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I), Acorn Stakes (gr. I), King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I), Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II), Lazaro Barrera Stakes (gr. III), Santa Maria Stakes (gr. II), La Canada Stakes (gr. II), Bayakoa Handicap (gr. II), San Carlos Stakes (gr. II), San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), Sham Stakes (gr. III), Steve Sexton Mile Stakes (gr. III), Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III), and Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III), plus two renewals apiece of the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I).

The Baffert/Smith team works well in part because Baffert frequently has the best horse in any given race and in part because Smith rides as though he’s aboard the best horse, often seizing the early initiative and daring rivals to catch up.

These facts could play to their advantage when Justify bids for Triple Crown glory in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on June 9th, one of seemingly few big races that Baffert and Smith haven’t yet won together. The Belmont Stakes has a history of favoring front-runners and speed horses; in fact, eight of the twelve Triple Crown winners (including the last five) won the Belmont Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion.

With Justify’s early speed and Mike Smith’ willingness to use it, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Justify takes the early lead in the Belmont Stakes, runs his rivals off their feet, and just keeps going to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner.

In any case, one thing is certain—when Baffert and Smith team up, they’re a force to reckon and appear poised to continue their great run throughout the remainder of 2018 and beyond.