The trio of tests is designed to expose chinks in otherwise strong armor, missteps in well-thought-out game plans, holes that even those closest to the horse going through the gauntlet didn’t even know were there.
It is the whole reason the five-week exercise that is the American Triple Crown remains the most heralded achievement in a sport that counts its age in centuries—because unlike any other challenge, it separates those who almost can from the select few who refuse to be denied.
Since the start of his career 112 days ago, Justify has been jumping through hoops that horses with his experience, or lack thereof, should never be able to handle. He went from maiden winner to grade 1 victor to classic hero in just over 70 days. He went into a quagmire two weeks after shoving history aside on the first Saturday in May and emerged more tested and hardened than ever. He arrived in New York to try his hand in a race that has flattened horses whose plaques hang in the Hall of Fame, while only serving as a coronation on 12 exceptional occasions.
And so it was in the 150th edition of the final leg of the Triple Crown that the son of Scat Daddy, already deemed a prodigy, became racing’s newest living legend. At the end of a five-week odyssey logic says should have taxed his chestnut frame to detrimental levels and highlighted the foundation that was poured in at an accelerated rate, he managed to redefine what those of his ilk can achieve.
Three years after a Bob Baffert-trained freak ran right on through the most heavily guarded club in racing, the velvet rope dropped once more for another prodigy from the barn of the man who himself keeps raising his own ceiling on greatness. Justify, the horse who didn’t make his first start until Feb. 18 and, thus, should have cracked under the strain that has undone many of an all-timer before him, captured the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) by 1 3/4 lengths in gate-to-wire fashion over the Chad Brown-trained Gronkowski to become just the 13th horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown.
The list of barriers that have gone down since Justify first announced himself at Santa Anita Park are as notable as the colt’s unprecedented ascension into racing’s annals. When he captured the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), he became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to take the 10-furlong test without having raced as a 2-year-old. When he turned back Eclipse Award winner Good Magic in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and then held off late-running Bravazo to prevail by half a length, he gave his Hall of Fame conditioner what was then a record-tying 14th victory in a Triple Crown race and put himself in position to join Seattle Slew (1977) as the only undefeated horses to take all three classics.
In equaling Slew’s feat with a sublime triumph Saturday that never saw him get seriously tested, Justify not only gave Baffert his record-breaking 15th Triple Crown race win, he put the white-haired savant alongside the great “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to condition two Triple Crown heroes, with Baffert also having guided American Pharoah , who famously ended the 37-year drought between feats in 2015.
Justify also provided his 52-year-old legendary jockey Mike Smith—pilot of such Hall of Famers as Zenyatta, Holy Bull, and Inside Information—the one accomplishment that was missing from his résumé.
“I’ve been through it and … if he was great, he was going to do it. And that’s what it’s about,” an emotional Baffert said of Justify. “To me, I wanted to see that horse, his name up there with the greats. If they’re great, they’re going to win the Triple Crown. It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown.
“I don’t have to really compare (Justify and American Pharoah) because if they make it on that wall (of Triple Crown winners), that’s all you need to say.”
That Baffert has been dropping Justify’s name in the same breath as American Pharoah’s since his 2 1/2-length victory over juvenile champion Good Magic in the Kentucky Derby was a shot across the bow of what would be coming down the pike heading into Belmont Park‘ssignature 1 1/2-mile test.
Where American Pharoah proved the game hadn’t passed the current-day Thoroughbred by in terms of being able to thrive during the Triple Crown grind, Justify illustrated that superior talent can get a late start and still run every obstacle into the ground. In his first career outing, Justify set testing fractions of :21.80 and :44.37 and still drew off to win by 9 1/2 lengths going seven furlongs. That display of speed and stamina proved to be just the tip of the iceberg of what he was about to become.
Following an equally handy 6 1/2-length, optional-claiming allowance win March 11, Justify was in a progress-or-bust situation where his Kentucky Derby prospects were concerned. He needed a top-two finish in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1) to ensure himself a shot to make history beneath the Twin Spires. As has become his trademark, he took it to the more seasoned members of his class—besting multiple grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro by three lengths—in an effort Baffert didn’t even think was emblematic of the colt’s upside.
“When we came with this horse, when he won his second out, I was thinking, ‘I think this is a Derby horse. He could be a Triple Crown horse, man,'” Baffert said. “He just showed us that raw talent was there. He’s like a walk-on. He just came on there and he broke every curse there was. It was just meant to be.”
After chasing a hot pace in the Kentucky Derby and after Good Magic tried to put the heat on him in the Preakness, the only vulnerability anyone could come up with when forecasting a dismal Belmont scenario for Justify was if the strain of packing five races into just over 90 days hit him between the ears when he had to stretch himself for 12 furlongs over a track whose surface can sap form from even the fittest of runners.
Even before the field of 10 was drawn, that notion took a hit when the colt campaigned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners threw down a pair of impressive works at Churchill Downs—most notably a four-furlong sizzler in :46 4/5 May 29 that had a look of a horse going through a routine gallop.
When he leaped out of post 1 Saturday and began his devastating rhythm before he even reached the first turn, the gauntlet was effectively thrown down.
“I knew if I jumped out well, he’s just faster than they are,” Smith said. “He was about a neck to a head in front the first couple of jumps, so I was really happy with the way he got away from there.
“Some horses just stay on, or some just completely stay off. But he just listens to everything I say. Every time I want him to just take a breather, I just put my hands back down and he’d settle right back down. And if I wanted to squeeze him a little, he’ll jump right back again.”
Smith is savvy enough to know not to get in the way of a great horse doing his thing. Making his life even easier was the fact none of Justify’s nine rivals bothered to press his tactical speed.
With his stablemate Restoring Hope going wide around the first turn and moving into second position, and Bravazo settling in third, Justify ran the opening quarter in an honest :23.37 but was allowed to back things off a bit through a half-mile in :48.11. As Smith and his partner reached the final turn after clocking a mile in 1:38.09, the Todd Pletcher-trained Vino Rosso loomed to his outside just a half-length behind.
Where that challenger and the rest of his brethren were coming under a ride, however, Smith was still sitting in statue mode, yet to call upon all the gas in the tank.
“I just wanted to wait as long as I could before I really put the pedal to the metal,” Smith said. “He dug back in, and I felt at that point he would hold off anybody that was coming.”
“Down the backside, I figured it would be nearly impossible for (Justify) to get beat by anyone when I saw 1:13 and change (for three quarters),” Brown added. “I changed my mind a little at the quarter pole when I saw Gronkowski saved every bit of ground because … (jockey) Jose Ortiz gave me a million-dollar ride today.”
As Justify hit the top of the lane with history within his grasp, Gronkowksi—who was last in the early going, several lengths behind the field after breaking slowly from post 6—indeed tried to do what his stablemate Good Magic had done before him and inject some drama into the outcome. The son of Lonhro whipped up the inside rail in his first Stateside start and first try on dirt and came with a rally that in most years would have been good enough to make him a stunner of a classic hero.
This was no ordinary season, however. And Justify reaffirmed in the stretch he was no ordinary athlete. As the crowd provided an emphatic soundtrack befitting the achievement before them, the big red specimen dug in gamely to hit the wire in 2:28.18 over a fast track, with Gronkowski besting the Bill Mott-trained Hofburg by 1 3/4 lengths for place honors.
“It was no fault of Jose that the horse didn’t break well,” Brown said of Gronkowski. “From there, he got everything out of this horse. He did a great job for me. (Baffert) did a training job that is one of the greatest of all time. The pace might have been a little slow, but this horse (Justify) ran in three Triple Crown races, and he showed up and earned it.”
“You can’t doubt Justify now,” Mott added. “There’s no way. You’ve got to give him credit.”
Vino Rosso faded to fourth, with Tenfold rounding out the top five. Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen, and Noble Indy completed the order of finish.
With his record a spotless 6-for-6 and his place among the best of the best secure, it is a wonder what the colt bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther could do next to add to his level of acclaim. A summer campaign was mentioned in the aftermath of his trek into the history books.
The most pressing thing all involved wanted to focus on, however, was giving themselves the proper time to soak in the achievements of the horse who took on a most improbable task in the most improbable of fashions and made it all look normal.
“To have the opportunity to be here and to make history like this is an incredible feeling,” said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm. “These horses just … you buy them or whatever, but a horse like this just kind of happens. You can’t find these horses. They find you.”