by Tom Pedulla
Justify stands alone.
Of the swift and lucky 13 Thoroughbreds who have won the Triple Crown since Sir Barton became the first to wear the mantle of greatness in 1919, only Justify holds the distinction of accomplishing the rare sweep after going unraced as a 2-year-old.
Justify completed a dizzying rise to superstardom, one brilliantly orchestrated by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, when he won the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets with a commanding 1 ¾-length victory against late-running Gronkowski on Saturday at Belmont Park.
“This horse ran a tremendous race. He’s so gifted,” said jockey Mike Smith, 52, in a post-race interview on NBC. “He’s sent from heaven, I tell you.” Smith became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown.
A crowd capped at 90,000 spectators roared its approval as the imposing chestnut colt prevailed for the sixth time in less than four months in a whirlwind campaign that allowed him to join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown winners.
Slew, benefitting from three starts at 2, was perfect through eight starts before he passed the Belmont’s arduous mile-and-a-half “Test of Champions.”
Baffert joined “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to produce two Triple Crown winners. Baffert, of course, saddled American Pharoah in 2015 when that horse ended a record 37-year drought. Fitzsimmons added to his legend with Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935). Baffert’s 15th Triple Crown win overall moved him ahead of D. Wayne Lukas for the all-time lead.
“It never gets old,” Baffert said, adding, “American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love.”
Baffert had steadily compared Justify to American Pharoah. He was not surprised that Justify followed American Pharoah’s lead with the same emphatic style of victory – wire to wire.
“He was showing me the same signs,” Baffert said after Justify prevailed for the sixth time in a scant 111 days. “He showed me that brilliance. Superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He’s just that kind of horse.”
While “New York, New York” blared over the loudspeaker, while excited fans hooted and hollered, Justify never turned a hair. He was so calm that Smith grew concerned.
“Did you see him standing in the gate? He’s standing so still,” Smith noted. “I actually thought ‘He’s not going to break today.’ “
Instead, his mount, so prepared and remarkably fresh despite a schedule that would have caused lesser horses to wilt, rocketed from the gate.
“I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico,” said Smith, referring to the quarter-horse beginnings that he shares with Baffert.
Justify, with stablemate Restoring Hope running an unthreatening second through the opening mile, looked strong throughout. He covered the opening quarter of a mile in a crisp 23.37 seconds and the half in a reasonable 48.11. He was efficiency in motion through three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.21 seconds. He was as comfortable as could be in clocking 1:38.09 for the mile en route to a final time of 2:28.18.
Gronkowski, 4-for-6 with all of his starts coming in Great Britain, exceeded all expectations in staging a tremendous rally from last in the field of 10 to be second in making his first start in the United States. He was attempting dirt for the first time while Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots’ stellar tight end, was part of the packed crowd. Gronkowski took a minority share in the horse before the Triple Crown series began.
It seems only yesterday, but it was actually Feb. 18 that Justify loudly announced his presence in roaring off to a 9 ½-length victory in his Santa Anita debut. Baffert declared that he had a plan that would allow the promising 3-year-old to overcome what seemed to be a hopelessly late start and still qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.
With Mike Smith replacing less experienced Drayden Van Dyke in the irons, Justify coasted by 6 ½ lengths in a March 11 allowance race before making the leap to Grade 1 competition in the Santa Anita Derby. He passed that acid test by three lengths.
Baffert’s plan had come to fruition. The son of Scat Daddy had earned 100 points in the Santa Anita Derby, more than enough to advance to the Kentucky Derby.
Difficult conditions challenged Justify almost as much as the competition he faced in the opening two legs. But as the saying goes, the great ones can run on anything. He splashed home by 2 ½ lengths at sloppy Churchill Downs to finally end the Curse of Apollo. Apollo (1882) had been the only other Derby winner that did not compete at 2.
In defeating nine foes in the Belmont Stakes, he turned back the largest field to challenge a potential Triple Crown winner, yet another element that allows him to stand alone.
For Baffert, the horse of a lifetime came along a second time.
Find out more about Horse Racing right here on EIE. This article originally appeared on America's Best Racing and is published here with permission.