Justify did it. He won the Triple Crown. That’s all you need to know. Save the corny, word-play headlines. ‘Justification!’ ‘Just Awesome!’ ‘Just-Amazing!’ They’re so pre-Belmont. Now, his achievement speaks for itself. Loud and clear. He’s the 13th Triple Crown winner in history. ONE THREE A baker’s dozen. ‘History,’ as we know, is a long time, so witnessing merely 13 occurrences of anything defines them as special.
He’s just the second undefeated sophomore to win the Triple Crown (Seattle Slew is the first). Justify’s also the first ever to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes without having raced as a 2-year-old. Saturday was the 150th Belmont Stakes. They run it once a year. That’s not as long as ‘history,’ but it’s still a pretty good stretch.
If you felt a smidge underwhelmed by this Triple Crown victory, don’t be alarmed. It’s a common affliction. However, don’t blame Justify or his Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont performances either for your less-than-jubilant state. It’s American Pharoah’s fault. He’s the culprit. Three years ago, he breached the dam. Poked a hole in its side. Released the pressure. Let the river flow after a 37-year drought. Thirsts were quenched. Parched throats soothed.
There was little of that this time. To the masses, Saturday’s triumph was more ‘Ho-Hum’ than ‘Holy Cow!’ A Triple Crown winner? Didn’t we just see one of those…like a year ago? It felt a bit like the ‘70’s when there were three of them in just five years.
For most racing aficionados, what happened Saturday was just as remarkable as what had occurred in 2015, 1978, 1977, 1973, 1948, 1946, 1943, 1941, 1937, 1935, 1930 and 1919. And a majority of experts are certain that Justify’s name belongs etched on a trophy alongside American Pharoah, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Citation, Assault, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, War Admiral, Omah, Gallant Fox and Sir Barton. Others aren’t so sure.
A difference of opinion is what makes a horserace. So, it’s unsurprising that not everyone agrees about Justify’s rightful place in history. Some wanted to see more from the colt. A demonstrative statement. A crowning achievement. Speed figures that leapt off of the page. Merely finishing first in all six races since Feb. 18 wasn’t enough. Justify was supposed to blow them away, like Big Red did in the Belmont. Win by 31, 25 or, at least double-digit lengths. Detractors say that wet tracks in Louisville and Baltimore favored Justify. They also maintain that because Bravazo finished a close second to him in the Preakness, with Tenfold third, that the race wasn’t at all impressive. They mock the Belmont because he had a perfect trip when no one ran with him early. Conspiracy theorists even allege that stablemate Restoring Hope ran early interference.
What’s that the kids say? Haters gonna hate. I feel sorry for those who didn’t immerse themselves in Justify’s journey every step of the way—from an eye-catching February maiden score, to a facile allowance cruise around the track, to the with malice dismissal of Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, to Louisville domination, to foggy Preakness fisticuffs with 2-year-old champ Good Magic, to a definitive Belmont triumph. It’s been a fantastic ride. Add the spice of a post-Derby, Churchill Downs barn area limp-fest before a horde of media and you have a piece of racing history jam-packed into less than four months!
Justify’s legend requires no defense. He went from maiden winner to unbeaten, four-time Grade 1, Triple Crown hero in 112 days! Case closed. End of story. If he had a mic, he’d drop it. Go ahead, ask me, ‘Who’d he beat?’ Answer: Everyone. Unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. What else is required? Would it help if he showed up in Central Park, offering kiddie rides for a quarter each? Maybe he should pull a shift on Big Apple streets under a policeman? How about plowing a field? Would that placate haters?
A critical point, highlighting the experienced genius of trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, is that they neither requested nor permitted Justify a ‘statement’ victory. They never allowed him to post a massive speed figure or to deliver a double-digit winning margin. They knew better than to squeeze the lemon dry. Win today, yes, but save something for tomorrow. Smart. Justify’s intelligence, too, made this possible. He never once got rank or ran-off—mornings or afternoons. In fact, during races he broke alertly and sped up or slowed down according to Smith’s desires.
As far as criticism that Justify favors wet tracks…I don’t think he does. He merely tolerates them. Justify’s best efforts have come over fast surfaces. In fact, some of his foes actually may have appreciated ‘wet stuff’ more than he did. And he still won. Dry or fast, one factor that makes Justify unbeatable is his speed. He takes control of a race immediately and then dares anyone to come and get him. No one forced the pace in the Belmont because they couldn’t and also live to tell about it. They weren’t fast enough. Any other excuse or alibi is pure fabrication.
Finally, the racing game’s changed. Horses don’t run as often at two as they used to. Justify didn’t race at all as a freshman. Accepting such change is a difficult adjustment for some racing fans, especially those who remember the ‘good old days’–when a two-year-old would make 10 or more starts while building a solid foundation for a three-year-old season. An extensive juvenile campaign also built a devoted fan base. Because of Justify’s late start, it was difficult for fans to form a dedicated allegiance to him. He had to make a great first impression.
Some of those of a certain age complain, ‘Today’s horses are soft, nothing like past greats. In my day, we had hardier horses.’ I’ve heard and read about that. Apparently, according to lore, in those ‘good old days’ you also had to walk five miles to school through snow without shoes! Times change. Go with the flow. That Justify did not race as a two-year-old and still had the constitution to win one of sport’s most elusive prizes makes me revere him even more!
It also fills me with anticipation. I can’t wait to see him race again this summer and fall. Perhaps, if all goes well, we will see his finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Then, Baffert and Smith finally can squeeze the lemon, pull out all the stops and permit this incredible athlete to show the world his greatness.