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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month

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NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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Raptors drop old-fashioned shootout to LeBron, Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND — Perhaps the Cavs and Raptors will meet yet again in the playoffs when the stakes will be higher than Wednesday’s meeting at the Q.

Perhaps the Raptors will find some way to slow down LeBron James and perhaps the entertainment value will be as good, perhaps even better.

What’s obvious is the Raptors have plenty of work to do on defence because this part of their game is not conducive to a deep post-season run, especially against an elite player such as James.

Seemingly on their way to a rare win over Cleveland, the Raptors lost sight of the fact basketball is a four-quarter game and that stops are a necessity.

So good in the first half, so vulnerable in the second as the Raptors succumbed to King James and his masterful floor game, 132-129, in a classic old-fashioned shootout, old-school ABA-style.

James was better than spectacular, scoring 35 points, dishing off 17 assists and not a single turnover.

The dagger came with 27.5 seconds left when James set up Kevin Love for a jumper.

Kyle Lowry was solid for Toronto, DeMar DeRozan decent after he sat out Tuesday night’s win in Orlando. His free throws made it a 128-126 game Cleveland with 22.8 ticks to go when the game came down to free throws.

“Third quarter,’’ said coach Dwane Casey on when the game began to turn. “We had some breakdowns (defensively). We over-helped.

With a great player like James, we can’t give him both where he gets the assists and the scoring. We can’t let him do both. We fell into the rhythm of giving him both.

“I thought it was a great game, a great battle. We’ve got to learn from things we can do, what we can’t do. I thought we played the way we wanted to play in the first half, made shots, played with force. I thought in the second half they dictated tempo, the style of play and we didn’t adjust to it.”

It was a great game, a loss that won’t hurt the Raptors psyche because they know they can score against the Cavs. DeRozan said as much following the loss.

With no timeout and trailing by three, DeRozan could have stepped out and tried a three, but he took what the defence gave and he drained a shot.

The ball was in his hands on the game’s final possession, but his heave missed.

“It was an offensive game, but we need to get a little bit more defence in the game,’’ said Casey. “We needed more physicality in the game.”

Cleveland came all the way back from a 15-point deficit at halftime with six minutes left in the game when James had an easy drive to the hole to produce a dunk, a basket that tied it up, 112-112, forcing the Raptors to call a timeout.

Three minutes later, the Raptors called another timeout following yet another James dunk. On Toronto’s first possession following the timeout, the Raptors turned it over.

Basketball is such a game of runs, the Raptors taking their turn in the second quarter, the Cavs in the third in a back-and-forth evening when the outcome would be decided in the fourth quarter.

It was entertaining, gripping at times, tense and very competitive.

James couldn’t be stopped and everything Cleveland initiated went through his hands, which is why he had such a presence, as he always does in big games.

Love stepped up, but there were many players on both sides who elevated their games.

One of the most overlooked qualities to James’ game is his passing, an ability to read the floor and use his imagination. One of his cross-court passes, on the money and on a line, was converted by Jeff Green, a play only James can make.

The Raptors played without C.J. Miles, who is battling the flu. Without him, the bench consisted of Fred VanVleet, who was back after missing two games with a bruised hand, Norm Powell, Delon Wright, Jacob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. The group began the second quarter.

In the first period, VanVleet showed his fearlessness by shooting each time he was open, making two of three three-pointers.

The Raptors were getting into the paint with impunity, either scoring at the rim or scoring on put-backs.

Both teams were on fire, the Cavs making 75% of their three-pointers, the Raptors not far behind, draining buckets from distance at a 64% clip.

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Carabins’ Régis Cibasu and Félix Ménard-Brière work to impress scouts

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It’s never a good sign when the media outnumber the scouts at a player’s pro day — even in Montreal, when the Canadiens are out of town and people are scrambling for a story.

Having said that, receiver Régis Cibasu and kicker Félix Ménard-Brière, along with the agent who represents the two Université de Montréal players, weren’t about to complain that only one NFL scout, from the Washington Redskins, was at Soccerplexe Catalogna on Monday morning.

And Darryl Franklin, the Redskins’ representative, was prohibited from talking to the media.

“Whether you have one (NFL team) or 32, as soon as an NFL team wants to travel in the middle of winter to Montreal or Quebec City, you have to organize it. It only takes one team,” said Montreal agent Sasha Ghavami.

This is a busy time in the NFL, as teams prepare for the draft at the end of April. Free agency began on Monday. There will be regional pro days beginning next week numerous players will be attending. And, while only the Redskins were on site, scouts from Oakland and Pittsburgh said they would have made the trip if not for free agency.

Besides, video was taken of all the drills that will be sent to NFL teams. And Carabins head coach Danny Maciocia said he has fielded calls from about eight teams expressing some interest in the 6-foot-3, 233-pound Cibasu, who participated in last January’s East-West Shrine all-star game in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Nonetheless, when Ghavami organized a similar pro day for McGill offensive-lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif four years ago, nine NFL teams attended. Duvernay-Tardif was selected by Kansas City in the sixth round and is now the Chiefs’ starting right guard.

“It’s never really good timing,” Ghavami said. “You can always find reasons not to do it. At some point you say we’re doing it this date, come if you can. If not, we’re going to send it to you. It’s not about the quantity of teams. It’s about doing it and having at least one show up.”

The Alouettes also sent a scout, while Saskatchewan was represented by an assistant coach, although they were there only for Cibasu. Ménard-Brière was drafted by Winnipeg and signed, only to be released. So he returned for his final year of university eligibility. While his CFL rights belong to the Blue Bombers, he also remains eligible for this year’s NFL draft.

Cibasu, 24, caught 145 passes for 1,765 yards in four seasons with the Carabins, while scoring seven touchdowns. He was the conference’s outstanding rookie in 2014 along with the Vanier Cup’s most valuable player. The school’s career leader in receptions, he’s ranked eighth overall by the CFL’s scouting bureau, but is unlikely to attend the league’s national combine, March 24-25 in Winnipeg, because of school commitments.

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