Justify led wire-to-wire in yesterday’s Belmont Stakes to stride into the history books as our 13th Triple Crown winner.
It seemed at times that Justify was up against not just the best three-year-old colts of his class, but against all of racing history as well.
First, there was the “curse of Apollo,” so named after the last unraced-as-a-two-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby, way back in 1882. No horse had managed to accomplish this task since then, though many had tried. Justify outran the 20-horse field in the rainiest Derby in history and silenced the critics.
For a time, anyway — when the colt suffered a stone bruise in the aftermath of the sloppy Derby, the critics came back in full force, doubting everything from Justify’s soundness to his trainer Bob Baffert’s abilities as a horseman to his connections’ ability to make the right decision for their horse’s future. The bruise was resolved. Justify trained, apparently better than ever.
Then there was the Preakness, an eerie race run in such a dense fog that at times the horses were nearly invisible: Justify was forced to duel early with Good Magic, then held off late runs from Bravazo and Tenfold to keep the Triple Crown dream alive. But it was not enough to simply win: again, the critics raised their voices with their doubts about the horse’s ability to go the mile and a half, the way he was nearly caught at the wire, his readiness to run yet again in just a few short weeks.
And on Saturday evening came the Belmont Stakes, the fateful “test of the champion” that had broken so many Triple Crown dreams, proving to be an impossible feat for so many who had come before him. But as the gates flashed open, Justify bounded from stall one right to the lead, and never looked back:
With stablemate Restoring Hope a length behind, Justify under Mike Smith set a fast opening quarter, then relaxed the pace into the backstretch with much of the field biding its time. Into the turn, Restoring Hope began to fade, with Kentucky Derby runner Vino Rosso uncoiling to move up on the leader.
But Smith had yet to ask Justify for anything — the big chestnut strode on, Vino Rosso toiling in his wake, Hofburg beginning to move up the field and Gronkowski cruising up the rail. Into the stretch, Smith asked the question, and Justify answered, holding off Vino Rosso and the imperious Gronkowski, striding easily home a length and a half in front.
As the son of Scat Daddy crossed under the wire, Mike Smith was sitting cool: no showboating, just quiet emotion, the enormity of what he and Justify had just accomplished sinking in.
Justify becomes the thirteenth Triple Crown winner, and the second winner with an undefeated record since Seattle Slew. It’s unknown right now where the horse, owned by Winstar, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, will be pointed next — whether he will retire to stud, take a break, or head for the summer stakes and perhaps eventually the Breeders’ Cup.
But for now, the Triple Crown is enough. Thank you, Justify.