ELMONT, N.Y. — Following every step of his short career, the people involved with Justify believed more and more they had a special colt in their barn. From his first race on Feb. 18 and continuing on his unconventional path to the Kentucky Derby, he had done things so brilliantly, so easily, that no dream seemed too big.
But even the most optimistic projections of Justify’s potential could not have accounted for what he accomplished on Saturday, becoming horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner a mere 111 days after making his racing debut.
Justify won the Belmont wire-to-wire, demolishing all expectations and precedent. And in the process, he gave horse racing a most unexpected surprise: A second Triple Crown winner in the last four years.
Until American Pharoah broke through in 2015, hope that a horse in the modern era could withstand the grueling test of three races in five weeks was beginning to fade. As 13 unlucky Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners since 1978 came and went from Belmont Park without completing the Triple Crown, the drought morphed from historical quirk to an existential struggle. Even some legendary voices in the game like trainer D. Wayne Lukas called for the races to be further spaced out or even shortened, citing an evolution of thoroughbred breeding that has made these animals more fragile and less capable of racing as often as their ancestors.
But the enduring allure of the Triple Crown is, and always has been, the difficulty of winning it. Perhaps unintentionally, it has given us a dividing line between horse racing’s immortals and those that were merely great.
Justify earned his own way to the other side, and he had to do it with few advantages other than his massive size and unique talent.
He didn’t even arrive in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn until last November, long after most of the top 2-year olds had already begun sorting themselves out into Derby contenders and those who would ultimately aim lower. Once he began training seriously for his debut at Santa Anita, he had no margin for error if Baffert’s plan to make a Triple Crown push was going to be realized. And once he accomplished the first step, becoming the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2, he got pushed to the limit in the Preakness, holding off Bravazo by a half-length in a race where it looked like a tough spring campaign might finally be taking its toll.
But in the Belmont, contested on a lightning-fast track that stood in stark contrast to the sloppy surface Justify overcame in the Derby and Preakness, he ran his competition into the ground. Breaking from the No. 1 post position, jockey Mike Smith sent Justify right to the lead, where he fended off challenges from Restoring Hope on the backstretch, Hofburg, who launched a rally around the far turn and then Gronkowski, who made a run at him in deep stretch. But it was Justify hanging on and drawing out in the final 1/16th of a mile, winning in a time of 2:28.18 by 1 3/4 lengths.
Despite being the first undefeated Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, there’s little expectation that Justify’s victory will resonate the same way American Pharoah’s did three years ago.
Whereas that triumph was met with a sustained roar of relief at Belmont, the Justify story simply came too soon and with far less human charm to build the same kind of anticipation.
His trainer, Baffert, has been a regular in these moments, losing his first three Triple Crown attempts before American Pharoah made him a winner. His ownership group was an amalgamation of the high-powered WinStar breeding farm, hedge fund executive Sol Kumin and a group of largely secretive Chinese businessmen. Only his 52-year old jockey, who has reached the peak of his powers in the twilight of his career, added much sentimental value to the story.
Thus, the crowd at Belmont Park on Saturday wasn’t as big, and the feeling when Justify crossed the wire wasn’t the same. But still, those who came and watched saw history made again.
No matter how it compares to the Triple Crown won three years ago by American Pharoah, it remains one of the most difficult feats in sports. And with every stride over the last 111 days, Justify proved he was worthy of the accomplishment.