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Justify Rewrites American Racing History with Unique Crown

Author: Michele MacDonald


After waiting 37 years for American Pharoah to come along in 2015 and sweep a Triple Crown, ending the long drought that ensued following Afffirmed in 1978, the American racing world seems to be a mix of curious, confounded and maybe even a little cynical in the wake of Justify’s coronation on 9 June. Didn’t he almost get caught in the Preakness? Weren’t his times on the slow side? What was all that fuss about an owner alleging that a stablemate helped compromise his rivals in the Belmont Stakes? How good is he, really? My answer is that he is not good. Rather, he is undeniably one of the best we’ve seen at this stage in his career. Ever. The facts tell this story: Justify has performed on a different plane, reaching heights never previously scaled.

He not only defied the ‘curse of Apollo’, the maxim horsemen recited that barred a horse unraced at two from winning the Kentucky Derby, he also became the first Triple Crown winner to gain his Derby and Preakness Stakes victories on virtual bogs of rain soaked racetracks. Following those two races, he leaped from the gate in the Belmont Stakes and never was challenged, taking on more challengers, nine, in that concluding jewel of the crown than had any other of the previous 12 Triple Crown champions. It all went by in an unduplicated blur. While he joined one other horse, Seattle Slew, as the rarest kind of Triple Crown winner, one who had never been beaten, no other horse in history had earned the title without racing at two.

And that’s a long history, with the youngest of the trio of classic races, the Preakness, having been run for the 143rd time in May. Justify soared from his debut in a 7f maiden victory at Santa Anita Park on 18 February into immortality in only 111 days. The very idea of such a deed could not have been conjured up by even the most idealistic. Yet trainer Bob Baffert, who surely is the savant of racing, was telling us all along that Justify was a superior racehorse. His first guidance came shortly after Justify’s maiden win when he proclaimed that, curse or no curse, he was going to try to get the colt into the Kentucky Derby. The kickback to that notion was strong. One veteran racing writer penned a piece in which he told Baffert to ‘forget about it’.

But Baffert knew what he had. “It’s not too late. I have a plan,” he promised. When he came to Dubai to saddle West Coast, who finished second to Thunder Snow in the Dubai World Cup, Baffert revealed more about just how highly he rated Justify. The imposing chestnut son of Scat Daddy, who had been purchased as a yearling for $500,000 by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, had followed up his maiden score with a handy allowance win at a mile on 11 March at Santa Anita. Baffert stood by the rail at Meydan to watch Coolmore’s Mendelssohn (another son of Scat Daddy who had been a $3 million yearling purchase) gallop after his arrival in Dubai, knowing that the colt could be a Derby rival at Churchill Downs.

With his inimitable joie de vivre, Baffert couldn’t help breaking into a big smile as he stepped away from the rail. “That’s a really nice colt; the second best 3yo by Scat Daddy,” he proclaimed. Mendelssohn, who already had won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf about five months earlier, went on to a record smashing UAE Derby victory under Ryan Moore, but it was a different story in Kentucky.

With persistent rain falling on a 20 horse field before a screaming crowd of over 157,000, Mendelssohn was bumped and bothered and eventually eased by Moore. The Kentucky Derby marked Mendelssohn’s eighth career start on a sixth racetrack in his fourth country. Remarkably, the Run for the Roses was only the fourth career start on the second track for Justify, yet the colt handled the assignment with a serene composure that was perfectly matched by his swiftness out of the gate and stamina over the 2000m as he defeated Champion Juvenile Good Magic. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Good Magic and jockey Jose Ortiz hounded Justify from the start, pushing him and taking him wide around the turns.

But despite that harassment, as well as jumping puddles and marks on the track no fewer than three times, Justify just carried on his winning ways. While his final Preakness margin may have been only half a length over Bravazo as Good Magic faded to fourth, Justify seemed to be coolly handled by jockey Mike Smith, who wrapped up on the colt late to preserve every ounce of energy he could for the Belmont. There was never really any contest in New York, and the Belmont lived up to its moniker as the ‘Test of the Champion’. Urged forward by Smith, Justify immediately bounded to the front and dared the field to get him, and none of the other colts could, although Dubai-based Phoenix Thoroughbreds’ Gronkowski made an eye catching run from last early to gain second.

Justify, however, seemed to just be galloping for most of the race, with neither the 2400m distance nor any of his challengers offering a serious threat. His Baffert-trained stablemate Restoring Hope, who was rank early, ran up for second through a mile, causing Mike Repole, co-owner of fourth placed Vino Rosso and last placed Noble Indy, to complain that he was ‘running interference’ for Justify. That gripe seemed no more than an expression of the bitter taste of sour grapes as Repole apparently had wanted Noble Indy to push Justify early in order to aid the late running Vino Rosso. Curiously, WinStar coowns Noble Indy, who just wasn’t speedy enough to make any impression in a Belmont that belonged entirely to Justify.

“He’s so gifted he was sent from heaven,” Smith exclaimed of Justify. Always confident in the prowess of his colt, Baffert noted that Justify ‘came on and broke every curse there was’. Justify’s feats elevated his trainer to the all time leader by American Classic wins with 15, and Baffert also became only the second trainer to condition two winners of the Triple Crown, following James ‘Sunny Jim’ Fitzsimmons, who saddled Gallant Fox and Omaha in the 1930s. But perhaps most remarkable of all the remarkable points involved with Justify in his four month journey to a permanent place in history was the simple fact that none of his crowning glories seemed to take much out of him.

The 16.3 hand coppery beauty held his massive weight of about 1280lb and was bright eyed and bouncing as he paraded before adoring fans at Churchill Downs on 16 June and again at Santa Anita on 23 June. Even American Pharoah had not emerged from the Belmont with such vigour. With his connections pledging to race him again prior to retirement under a reported stud deal with Coolmore that could be worth $75 million, Justify may have more to show us before he leaves the racing stage. Yet even if he never runs again, he already is a champion for the ages.

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27 Sep 2018
Issue Number: Issue 648
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