ELMONT, N.Y. – Justify's arrival at Belmont Park on Wednesday was treated with all the fascination for detail you might expect from a space launch or even a royal wedding.
His plane left Louisville at 10:39 a.m. and arrived at Long Island MacArthur Airport at 12:25 p.m. The van left for the track at 1:46 p.m., arriving at Barn 1 at 2:10 p.m. Justify stepped off the van at 2:13 p.m.
But, despite the media mob and nonstop sound of cameras whirring, it was different than it was three years ago, when American Pharoah arrived in the hopes of being the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. The media contingent isn't quite as big, maybe 30 percent smaller. The security around the barn is more accommodating. Trainer Bob Baffert seemed more relaxed and resigned to whatever outcome awaits Justify's attempt to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown on Saturday.
Fans waited almost four decades between Affirmed and American Pharoah. Now, it has been only three years.
"The difference between three years ago [and now] is we probably came in here trying to see if we can get it done," Baffert said Wednesday afternoon. "But it's a different vibe now because we know it can be done. I want to see him win it for [himself]. because he brought us here."
Saturday will be Justify's sixth race, the lowest of any horse to sweep the three races.
Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey now serving as a commentator for NBC Sports, also sees a difference. "I only speak for myself, but in general, interest might be a little less," he said. "I think that people believe now that you can do it. This horse has won two of the three and maybe it's not as hard as people thought. But those that have been around and saw the close calls know it's awful tough."
Between the time Affirmed won in 1978 and American Pharoah won in 2015, 13 horses won the first two legs but failed in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. Baffert trained three of them: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).
Saturday, there will be 90,000 people at Belmont Park, and the number would be higher if there wasn't a cap on attendance. Viewership numbers will also be much higher than last year, when three different horses won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"I think a lot of people feel a connection with American Pharoah to this day," Baffert said. "Strangers come up to me and say how happy American Pharoah made them feel just watching him win the Triple Crown.
"They fall in love with these animals, and Justify, he's getting a following."