Billy Reed: Baffert is the best trainer of all time, Justify could still be improving

Billy Reed: Baffert is the best trainer of all time, Justify could still be improving
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - WAVE 3 News sat down with legendary sportswriter Billy Reed Sunday to talk about Justify, the Triple Crown, and the state of horse racing in Kentucky. Reed shared firsthand accounts of Seattle Slew's Triple Crown run, and detailed decades of covering one of the hardest feats in all of sports. Read the full interview here:

Starting out as an un-run two-year-old, Justify has reached heights that are surprising to some. What are your thoughts on his development?

Justify has done things no horse has ever done. Winning the Derby when not racing as a two-year-old, he's now the second horse to win the Triple Crown while still unbeaten, the way he did it with that horrible weather here in Louisville, and Baltimore, he could be any kind of a horse. I don't think we've seen the best of him yet. I still think that he's young enough, and it's kind of scary to think,  but he could still be improving.

We obviously don't know when he's going to be racing next, but a lot of people are thinking the Breeder's Cup, where he'll look to, like American Pharoah, win the Grand Slam.

I think they're going to be really careful with what they do with him, unlike the owners of Seattle Slew. I was very close to them, and the trainer Billy Turner wanted to give him a long rest after the Belmont. But the young owners, who thought he was just invincible, insisted that they go to California, to Hollywood Park, and really jacked up the purse of the Swap Stakes

Where does Bob Baffert fall for you now in the Pantheon of horseracing's most elite trainers?

" In my opinion, Bob Baffert is the best trainer of all time. I know there will be some old-timers out there who want to argue about that, "There's nobody better than Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons or Ben Jones". But When you look at what he's done in a relatively short amount of time, he came to the Derby for the first time in 1996. But I think when you look at what he's accomplished, two triple crowns now, multiple Derbies and Preaknesses, I'm sorry, I think the guy is the best we've ever seen."

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What do you think is the historical significance of these two horses? We had the 37-year drought, and now we've had two Triple Crowns in four years:

These things tend to go in cycles it seems like. We had four Triple Crown winners in the forties, none in the fifties, none in the sixties. Three in the seventies, none in the eighties, nineties or aughts. And now we've got two. I don't have any real explanation for that, but it does seem like they kind of come in bunches. I can remember back in 1979, when Spectacular Bid looked like a shoe-in to be a Triple Crown winner, he would've been the fourth of that decade. I wrote a column for the Courier Journal asking if the Triple Crown had become too easy? That's one I'd like to have back.

So do you think we're approaching one of those droughts again, or are we in a time when Triple Crowns are coming more often?

It's hard to say. We could go on another long drought. These horses, as big and strong as they are still so fragile. There's an infinite number of things that can go wrong. Luck plays such a big role in it, it's hard to predict. I just hope people will enjoy what we're seeing now with Pharoah and Justify. Obviously it doesn't happen that often. I'm really glad that today's younger fans now have their Triple Crown winners. So old people like me don't have to keep telling them about Secretariat or Seattle Slew, they now have their own.  Thoroughbred racing may not be what it used to be, but still a horse can move the public, can really unify the public in a way that I don't think any other sport can do. You look at the crowds with American Pharoah's Belmont and the one Justify won, and everyone no matter who they bet on, they were just happy. And really only thoroughbreds can do that.

You said that in *column title*, I also read your thoughts on how runs like Justify's can unite people, how important is that in a divisive time?

There's so much it seems like today, everybody's mad about something, everybody is arguing about whatever, and it gets to be kind of depressing so I think every now and then, we need one of those uplifting, happy stories that will give us at least some relief from the things that we're seeing. Secretariat did that in 1973, certainly. And I hope this horse has done the same in 2018. That for just a few minutes, we can all celebrate the excellence of what he achieved.

When American Pharoah made his Triple Crown run, he seemed to be treated with reverence as the horse who could break the drought. How do you think people approached Justify as he attempted to win the same races?

I hope people don't link the two of them two much. Because they are two distinct individuals that accomplished things in different ways. American Pharoah got beat up at Saratoga by Keen Ice in the Travers, and then came back of course and finished his career with the Breeders Cup Classic at Keeneland.  I think that they'd love to see this horse retire unbeaten, Justify. But that means you're going to have to be really careful, you have to pick your spots. But he's got a shot. He could be, besides being such a big horse, he just seems like he likes what he does. He can handle anything, he's a real competitor. I'm really excited about looking forward to the rest of this year. I'd be surprised if they keep him in training after this year. I think whatever happens with the Breeders Cup Classic, that will be probably his last race.

Justify is a Kentucky horse, he won the Triple Crown, and the Breeders Cup will be back at Churchill Downs, and Pharoah won his Grand Slam at Keeneland. So what do you think all of that says about the state of horseracing in Kentucky right now?

The state of horseracing in Kentucky, I think, is quite strong. It seems like no matter what the industry does, Churchill Downs and the Derby just get bigger and bigger. Keeneland will always be Keeneland, and Ellis Park and Turfway have improved. But we're not seeing as many foals today as we used to see, because there aren't as many tracks, and therefore not as many races. But still 95% of all thoroughbreds are bred here in Kentucky. It's going to be interesting when they open it up to gambling on all sports if that'll be good or bad for thoroughbred racing. But I think right now, Kentucky's in a good spot.

And on hall-of-fame jockey Mike Smith becoming the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown?

Mike is one of those guys that has been around for a long time, I guess you could say he's like vintage wine, he's just gotten better. He's 52 years old now and he's riding better than he ever has. I was certain that if Justify got beat it wouldn't be because of jockey error. Because Mike really knows the horse, he knows what he's doing. He's ridden in all of these big races. And I think he's sort of a rags-to-riches story that Americans love. He just fell in love with horses at a very young age, and he was determined he ewas going to be a success. I think stories like that are good for young people to know about. He quit school, which is not a good thing, I'm not in favor of that by any means. But it just goes to show if you have enough talent and enough passion, you can come from any place and be successful.

Justify and Smith had a great run yesterday. Justify broke left at the beginning, but Mike got him back in line and kept gas in the tank.

The Number 1 post position at the Belmont is different from the derby, because at the Derby  with 20 horses, you have to funnel, and a lot of times the inside horse can get shut off. But at Belmont, he was able to get right out there, as he wanted to do. Noble Indy on the outside tried to get over to him and couldn't do it. And he got right where he wanted to be and said " ok guys, what do you got? You want to try to pass me, fine. I've got another gear. You want to hang back? Bye bye, I'll see you later" And that's the way he rode the race.

Gronkowski hung back and tried to make a move late. We haven't seen a lot of him, what's your read on that horse?

I was shocked by Gronkowski. He certainly ran a very credible race. I don't think he was ever a threat to catch the winner. But a lot of those horses had given up when they turned for home. So I don't know if his move was due to his talent or whether he was the only one who still wanted a piece of the action.

Baffert said this morning that after the race yesterday, Justify looked like he could've run the race again. Did he look like that to you?

That's the amazing thing about him. I went over the morning after the Derby and Baffert let him out of the barn and he looked like he could go right out there and run around again. He is a big, strong horse and I bet like Secretariat he's got an oversize heart. He's got the speed you want to see, he's also got the stamina and most importantly, he's a competitor. He's going to find a way to win. And when you see that in a horse, that's always really impressed me.

Many people noted how loose and vocal the horse was consistently, he's got some personality, no?

He's got some personality. And yet he's not like Seattle Slew.  I remember Seattle Slew was such a high-strung, that before his Belmont, Billy Tuner the trainer, waited until the absolute last minute to get him to the paddock. I was with him and I remember saying "Billy, Billy, don't you think you'd better take him over?" And he said "You don't think they'll start without us, do you?" But he got him in there the last minute, threw the saddle on him and boom, he's out on the track. So he didn't have to spend any time standing around. This horse is totally different. He and Mike Smith before the race yesterday when they were still circling the paddock, Mike's got his legs dangling out of the stirrups, they just looked as calm as they could possibly be.

Where does Justify fall for you in a list of the Top 5 horses of all time?

I think it's a little premature for me to rank him. Most of the other Triple Crown winners did race when they were old horses and a lot of old timers say that's something you need to do. Secretariat did not, and he ran the greatest Triple Crown series ever. But nobody's ever beaten this horse, so I think you have to start there. And also people were saying before the Derby, that this was a very strong crop of three-year-olds. So he could end up anywhere on that list. I think he certainly has the license to be one of the top four or five of all time. But then again, that's the thing about horse racing, you can't take anything for granted. You have to wait and let it all play out.

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