Justify Achieves Immortality As Racing’s 13th Triple Crown Winner
Chestnut Colt Joins Exclusive and Legendary Club
By Margaret Ransom
There was a good reason why there were only 12.
Since Sir Barton in 1919 became the first winner of the three races now known as horse racing’s Triple Crown – The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes – only 11 others over a nearly 100-year period followed, names we now recognize as legends in the sport – Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and most recently American Pharoah.
In between years, another nearly two dozen tried and failed, including 13 since 1978 alone. When American Pharoah came along in 2015 and ended a 37-year drought racing fans believed would never be quenched, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert – who suffered three near-misses with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem within a five-year period – finally achieved the dream he’d so desperately desired.
Depending on who you talked to and on what day, theories of why winning the Triple Crown was nearly an impossible task ranged from the changing durability of the Thoroughbred breed, to modern-day training practices, to the setup of the three-race series itself and so many more. But maybe, just maybe, it was as simple as only a precious few being talented enough. After American Pharoah it seemed Baffert knew that to be true and with the right horse he could – and would – do it again.
So in front of the monstrous Belmont Park building filled with a roaring crowd of more than 90,000 people, Justify was that right horse and became racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner with his impressive Belmont Stakes victory. The colt’s regular jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, was in the saddle and at the age of 52 became the oldest rider to ever win the Triple Crown.
“Like I was saying earlier up on stage when we were accepting the trophy, Bob has helped me achieve so many of my goals, but today, man, he made my dream come true. So it was just him and his crew and everyone who works with him – he talks about how brilliant his crew is, and then he just puts an old man out there to sit still, who stays out of the way and lets a good horse be a good horse. That’s what I do with him. “
After a smooth and easy break from the innermost post position, Justify and Smith went right to the front without challenge and led at every call of the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes through splits of :23.37, :48.11, 1:13.21, 1:38.09 and 2:02.90 and though mildly threatened by a closing runner-up Gronkowski, the race was all but over soon after the gates swung open as none of Justify’s nine rivals ever came closer to being less than a length and a half close to him.
Over a fast Belmont main track, the final time for the 150th Belmont Stakes was 2:28.18.
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” Smith said. “He’s so gifted. He’s sent from heaven. He’s just amazing. Did you see him standing in the gate? He’s standing so still… I actually thought, ‘He’s not going to break today.’ I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico.”
Following runner-up Gronkowski under the wire was Hofburg, Vino Rosso, Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
Justify was the 4-5 favorite and paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80.
“It’s amazing,” Baffert said. “It never gets old. American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love. (Justify) was showing me the same signs (as American Pharoah), he showed me that same brilliance. Superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He’s just that kind of horse.
“You know, all week, since the Preakness, we felt really good about this horse,” Baffert said. “He shipped in here really well. When I saw him train the first day here, he was just… he went around there like they’re supposed to go around there. He’s tipped us off from his first race. But you still have to get around there. And I knew the pace, he was going to have to ask him hard away from there and get him in there and get him going in the race. Going into the first turn, we saw those horses out there, and I saw the :23 — what is it, :23 and 3, yeah, so that was a little bit — boy, that’s fast. But he slowed it down, and I saw :48, felt a little bit better. I was looking, I was talking to Jill, my wife, the whole way, and I said if we can get about a “13 and 3, “13 and 4, we’re okay, and I think we had :13 and 1. And then when he made that move in the far turn, I was like, oh, Mike, oh, Mike, don’t empty that tank, Mike.
“But turning for home, you could just tell this horse, he just finds… the great ones, they just find another gear. I really didn’t get excited probably until the last 100 (yards), sixtheenth of a mile where I knew he was home free and started to really enjoy the race.
Justify, who was a $500,000 Keeneland September yearling in 2016, is now undefeated in six starts and also boasts the Santa Anita Derby as the fourth grade 1 on his resume. Overall he’s earned $3,798,000. He joins the legendary Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner.
Bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther, the flashy chestnut son of Scat Daddy and the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, is owned by the partnership of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners (Sol Kumin) and Starlight Racing. He is the first horse WinStar, who is managing partner, has ever sent to Baffert.
“I get asked a lot how we move our horses around and why we give horses to certain trainers. I don’t… I mean, a lot of it’s just kind of a gut feel about
each horse,” WinStar CEO Elliott Walden said. “As far as this horse goes, one of the things that I thought was important was we were behind the eight ball. We do focus on the 3-year-old classics, not that every horse we have is going to run there, but you certainly want to try to give him an opportunity. The weather in California is very consistent. He was going in to training late. I thought that was something that was a consideration. And again, he looked like a very good horse, and we tried to hire a very good trainer. Maybe the greatest of all time.”
Justify will return to Churchill Downs where his connections will receive their Kentucky Derby trophies on Stephen Foster Stakes night, Saturday, June 16, before returning to California on Sunday, June 17, where a plan for his future racing schedule will be mapped out.