Year in Review | Justify wins Triple Crown

Justify became the second Triple Crown winner in four years — after a 34-year drought.

This story might’ve ranked higher on the list had Justify not stopped. His victory in the Belmont was the last time we would see him on the track. He arrived on the scene suddenly, having not raced as a 2-year-old, and left it just as suddenly. But in between, his dominance and brilliance was as pronounced as any colt’s has been in pursuit of a Triple Crown. Just the second horse ever to win the Triple Crown unbeaten, he deserves his place in history — and among the year’s top stories.

Justify the hype: Baffert’s colt wins Triple Crown

By Eric Crawford,
June 9, 2018, Elmont, N.Y.

He was a walk-on. Those were the words that Bob Baffert used several weeks ago about his Triple Crown winner Justify, who arrived in his barn last fall without having run a race as a 2-year-old, after running past a pulled muscle and minor knee surgery a year earlier.

University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, he of 5-star recruiting fame, was at Belmont Park on Saturday with Baffert and the WinStar Farm ownership team. But this was not a 5-star recruit. Justify brought only $1,000 more than his reserve price at the Keeneland auction where he was purchased.

Just a walk-on. But on Saturday, Justify ran away with horse racing history, having long since blossomed from walk-on to chestnut champion.

He broke from the No. 1 hole at Belmont Park and within two strides had all the room he needed.

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Justify sprinted to the lead, just ahead of stablemate Restoring Hope, a wing-man on his right shoulder, running interference through the first mile of the race. Then jockey Mike Smith picked him up midway through the sweeping Belmont turn and nobody could catch him. He became the 13th winner of the Triple Crown.

“The great ones,” Baffert said after the race, “they just find another gear.”

Gronkowski, a longshot, tried to go with him, but couldn’t seriously threaten him. Hofburg, who hasn’t raced since the Kentucky Derby, tried to make a move on the outside but was better than three lengths back.

And history was made again. A Belmont crowd of 90,327, many of whom laid down $20 for foam rubber crowns bearing the message, “Go Justify,” roared as Smith walked him the length of the long stretch, then waved to the crowd as he walked back toward the winner’s circle, raising his helmet, pointing to the horse.

When they put the blanket of carnations on Justify, Smith, who at age 52 became the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown, grabbed handfuls of petals with both hands and threw them into the air in celebration.

Here’s the place in history for Justify: He becomes just the second unbeaten colt ever to win the Triple Crown. He beat more competitors in the Belmont than any colt had ever beaten to win the Triple Crown. He beat more competitors in the three Triple Crown races than any Triple Crown winner (35).

His Belmont winning time was 2:28.18, the fourth-fastest among Triple Crown winners, after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the slop.

After a 37-year drought, Baffert and the crowd celebrated a cathartic win for American Pharoah in 2015. This time, the celebration wasn’t quite as sustained, but the accomplishment was even more impressive.

“You don’t have to compare them,” Baffert said, pointing to a wall at Belmont where the Triple Crown winners are listed. “If you make this wall, they’re great.”

For the record, Justify’s aggregate time for the three Triple Crown races is the fifth-fastest ever, just behind American Pharoah. But Justify ran over terribly sloppy tracks at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.

Bill Mott, trainer of Hofburg, said he thought his colt ran well but he was disappointed Justify wasn’t pressed harder for a faster pace. He credited Smith for a strong ride.

“Mike is great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse,” Mott said. “I mean, they’re a good combination and they got the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner. A lot of people are happy about it. You can’t doubt (Justify) now, there’s no way. You’ve got to give him credit. He did it right up on the pace, and everybody had an opportunity to take their shot. They didn’t do it today. They let it go too easy.”

Hugging outside the winner’s circle were Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, and Baffert, with Teo Ah Khing. Along with Jack Wolff of Louisville, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners and Sol Kumin, the diverse ownership group packed the winner’s circle.

But this was a WinStar production. Their team was perceptive enough to buy a colt when nobody much was looking at him. They got him up to speed on at their Versailles, Ky., facility. They put together the diverse owners.

Justify wasn’t even jinxed by a mid-Triple Crown change in silks — he wore the red and gold of China Horse Club on Saturday.

“Well, grateful to have a horse like this, to have the opportunity to be here, to make history like this is an incredible feeling,” Walden said. “These horses just — you buy them or whatever, a horse like this just kind of happens. Bob has done a marvelous job with him. Mike has done a marvelous job with him. But we have to have the horse, and Bob made me feel pretty good leaving the paddock. I said, what did you tell Mike. He said, ‘I told him the gas tank is full, don’t use it all at once.’ But just real blessed because you can’t find these horses, they find you.”

Baffert, a few minutes later, took issue with that.

“They found this horse,” he said. “He didn’t find them.

As for Baffert, it’s now two Triple Crowns in four years, cementing his spot among the legends of the sport, matching the two won by the legendary James E. “Sonny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who trained Omaha and Gallant Fox in 1930 and 1935.

No trainer now has won more Triple Crown races than Baffert’s 15. He moved ahead of D. Wayne Lukas (at 14) with this Triple Crown run.

“I really didn’t think about that,” Baffert said. “I’m just so — it’s a privilege to have a horse like this. . . . To me, when you win the Derby five times, I really felt like, ‘Wow, I won the Derby.’ But this is more to me — I wanted to see that horse, his name up there with those greats. If they’re great, they’re going to win the Triple Crown. It takes a great horse.

“I was weeping when they interviewed me. I got very emotional, because I really think — I’m getting help upstairs. I think of my parents, I think of all the good friends I’ve lost, and I know they’re up there — I really believe in that, that they’re helping me out, they’re giving me that little push. I think things happen for a reason. If it was meant to be, it was meant to be. I knew this horse was doing well. We had him ready, but that horse, it was just — just to train a horse like that, he’s just a magnificent animal.”

Justified paid $3.60, 3.50 and 2.80 as a 4-5 favorite. Gronkowski returned $13.80 and 7.80 and Hofburg paid $3.70 to show.

“”It was a monster race,” said trainer Dale Romans, trainer of seventh-place finisher Free Drop Billy. “It’s a great honor to be a part of it. The noise from the crowd out front was shaking this building. It was incredible. It’s nice to be a part of something special.”

It took only 111 days from first race to Triple Crown for Justify. Now, he’ll return to Baffert’s Barn No. 33 at Churchill Downs on Monday (hard not to note the numerology in both of those), while Walden and the owners ponder the Scat Daddy colt’s lucrative breeding future. Whether he’ll race more, no one would say. American Pharoah continued through the Breeders’ Cup Classic. There has been no such commitment from the owners of Justify.

Regardless, he made quick work of greatness. It was breathtaking.

“To win six races in that short a time, it’s unbelievable,” Smith said. “He ran a tremendous race. He’s so gifted. He’s sent from heaven.”

His name, Walden said, came from the book of Romans, which says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Peace, and on a sun-splashed Saturday at Belmont Park, victory, and the crown that goes with it.