For the second time in four years and for only the second time in four decades, horse racing’s Triple Crown was conquered Saturday. History had repeated itself, and in more ways than one.
Joining Justify in the winner’s circle was Bob Baffert, his trainer, who had also saddled American Pharoah to his 2015 Belmont and Triple Crown victories. With the win Baffert joins the rarified company of Sunny Fitzsimmons, the one other trainer to notch two Triple Crowns, his first with Gallant Fox in 1930, and again in 1935 with Omaha.
As befits a champion, Justify led from gate to wire, and completed his mile-and-a-half journey in 2:28.18, a length-and-three-quarters ahead of Gronkowski, who is named and partly owned by Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots’ tight end.
Make no mistake, Justify is that good. On top of finishing first, Justify did it in a hurry.
To put things in context, the three-year-old Justify ran the distance more quickly than Hoppertunity, a seven-year-old, who had won a mile-and-a-half stakes race for older horses earlier in the afternoon. For the record, Hoppertunity is another Baffert-trained horse, one of three Belmont Day winners for Baffert.
Mike Smith, Justify’s jockey, gave the champion a flawless ride.
After running the opening quarter-mile in quick 23.37 seconds, Justify settled in, and moved along as if he were on cruise control, steadily, efficiently, flawlessly. Like a well-oiled machine, Justify and Smith let nine other horses know exactly who was in charge.
Looking back, Justify’s post position wasn’t the impediment that it was feared to be. The big chestnut colt broke alertly, and as Smith framed things after the race, “I knew if I jumped well, he’s just faster than they are.”
Bravazo, the D. Wayne Lucas-trained Preakness runner-up, was also on Smith’s mind as a challenger to Justify. “I thought it would be Wayne's horse, Bravazo. I knew they were going to be sneaky aggressive. I just had that feeling. He out-jumped him”, according to Smith. Indeed, Bravazo ran no closer than third during the race, and finished sixth, way up the track.
Smith also made history in his own right. At 52, Smith is the oldest jockey to pilot a Triple Crown winner. Smith attributes his longevity at the track to a rigorous fitness regimen.
After the race, Baffert talked about his first Triple Crown win with American Pharoah. As Baffert put it, “that's the thing, and that's one thing this horse has, American Pharoah has, is not only are they brilliant, they're fast, but they're durable, and they have to be taken -- this horse was like, you could tell he's getting better.”
Yet, Baffert refused to measure the two horses against each other. “They’re two different types,” he said. “It's like comparing your kids,” Baffert continued.
Later he reminisced about the one that got away from him with Point Given, who lost his bid for Triple Crown immortality in the closing yards of the 2001 Belmont.
Having now gone six-for-six, an unblemished record, Justify has earned a well-deserved breather. According to his connections, Justify’s next race will be sometime in August, at Saratoga in the Travers, or in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in New Jersey.
Looking to retirement, it has been estimated that Justify stands to earn approximately $60 million in stud fees once he retires.