by Jon White
June 13, 2018
Prior to the post parade for last Saturday’s 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, three words trainer Bob Baffert said to Mike Smith, the seemingly ageless 52-year-old rider of Justify, pretty much spelled doom for the other nine starters in the race. Justify was just minutes away from attempting to complete a sweep of three races in five weeks at three different tracks and become this country’s 13th Triple Crown winner.
The three words?
“The tank’s full.”
The next order of business for Baffert, Smith and Justify was the start of the race. The Hall of Fame trainer and Hall of Fame rider both felt it was imperative for Super J to come out of the gate alertly in the Belmont, just as he had when he won the May 5 Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles and May 19 Preakness at 1 3/16 miles on sloppy tracks. Justify started from post position No. 7 in both the Derby and Preakness. This time, he began from post 1.
While Baffert always seems unhappy whenever one of his horses gets post 1, at least in the Belmont it’s nowhere close to being the dicey situation it is in the Kentucky Derby. In the Derby, a horse leaving from post 1 in the 1 1/4-mile chute has to actually angle toward the right a bit after the leaving the gate to avoid running smack into the inside rail when linking up with the main track. On top of that, because the Derby almost always has a field of 20, the horse breaking from post 1 can easily encounter severe traffic congestion because of all the horses to the right who are moving toward the left early to try and avoid racing wide.
After what happened to poor Lookin At Lucky in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, no one can blame Baffert for being a nervous wreck whenever one of his horses draws post 1 in a Triple Crown race. Baffert looked on in horror as Lookin At Lucky quickly became Lookin At Unlucky. After the colt got body-slammed and nearly knocked into the inside rail early, he finished sixth as the 6-1 favorite. Two weeks after Lookin At Lucky’s Derby debacle, he won the Preakness.
As far as strategy for the 2018 Belmont Stakes, Baffert stressed the importance to Smith that Justify needed to get out of the gate quickly by saying “it looks like we’re going to have to Arrogate-Travers again.”
Smith rode the Baffert-trained Arrogate for the first time in the 1 1/4-mile Travers at Saratoga in the summer of 2016. Arrogate broke from post 1 in a field of 13. Making his fifth career start, Arrogate was running in a stakes race for the first time and was 11-1 in the wagering. Arrogate and Smith blasted away from the gate, set the pace and drew off in the stretch to win by 13 1/2 lengths. Arrogate’s final time of 1:59 1/5 (1:59.36 in hundredths) shaved four-fifths of a second off the track record of 2:00 flat set by General Assembly 37 years earlier.
Adding to how crucial it was for Justify to have an alert beginning last Saturday was the manner in which all 12 previous Triple Crown winners had won the Belmont Stakes. Prior to this year, eight of the 12 Triple Crown winners had been pace factors from the get-go in the Belmont. But even the other four -- Assault, Omaha, Sir Barton and Whirlaway -- did not come from way back. Indeed, no Triple Crown winner has ever been farther back than fourth at any point in the Belmont.
Justify broke from the gate with such alacrity in the Belmont that Smith said “he left there like he was [a Quarter Horse] going 440 yards at Ruidoso, New Mexico.”
In stark contrast to the Kentucky Derby, after Justify left the gate from post 1 last Saturday, there was considerable space to his left. When there is daylight either to a horse’s left or right in the opening strides, the horse often will drift toward it. Immediately after Super J came out of the gate in the Belmont, with plenty of space to his left, he drifted inward before quickly being straightened by Smith.
Justify proved to be yet another Triple Crown sweeper who was a pace factor from the outset. One of the colt’s many attributes is he’s what a rider will call push-button. Step on the gas pedal, Justify goes. Ease your foot off the pedal a bit, Justify cooperates and decelerates a bit. Justify has the talent and tactical speed to race forwardly early, which enables him to make a good trip for himself by staying out of any potential traffic pickles. But he is not a one-dimensional front-runner. He has shown that he can rate kindly and win from off the pace.
After Justify ran the first quarter in :23.37, pretty quick for a 1 1/2-mile race, Smith eased his foot off the gas pedal a little. Smith said he was able to get Justify into a nice, comfortable rhythm after the opening quarter. Without ever getting the least bit rank, Justify stepped the half in :48.11 and the initial six furlongs in 1:13.21. Even though he continued rolling along with a clear lead of 1 1/2 to two lengths, Justify slowed down the tempo in those second and third quarters. He went the second quarter in :24.74, the third in :25.10.
Justify then picked up the pace. While continuing to lead by 1 1/2 to two lengths, he posted fractions of 1:38.09 for a mile and 2:02.90 for 1 1/4 miles. That meant he went his fourth quarter in :24.88 and fifth in :24.81.
Baffert said to Smith before the race that Justify’s tank was full. The final quarter-mile would tell the tale. Would Justify have enough gas left while coming down the lane to get the job done? Or would the cumulative effect of making his sixth career start just 111 days after he had won his career debut on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita finally take a toll and lead to Justify’s first loss?
Vino Rosso moved up to pose a threat to Justify approaching the top of the stretch. But Vino Rosso did not have the necessary punch in the lane. Hofburg rallied to get within easy striking range of Justify at the top of the stretch. But Hofburg similarly lacked the needed kick in the lane.
With a furlong to go, Phoenix Thoroughbred’s Gronkowski, a 24-1 longshot, had emerged from the pack as the lone serious danger to Justify. Gronkowski is named after New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, who acquired an ownership interest in the colt earlier this year. The NFL star was in attendance at the Belmont to root for his namesake. Baffert was tickled that the popular Gronk posed for a photo with the trainer’s 13-year-old son, Bode, before the race.
Making his United States debut after winning four straight races on synthetic surfaces in England, Gronkowski the colt trailed early in the Belmont after a lackadaisical start, racing 14 lengths off Justify’s early pace. Gronkowski, who is a grandson of the aforementioned Lookin At Lucky, made a bold move along the inside on the far turn. Jose Ortiz Jr., Gronkowski’s jockey, delivered a Calvin Borel-ish rail-skimming ride.
It turned out that final furlong of the Belmont was strikingly similar to that of the Kentucky Derby.
In the Derby, Good Magic was 2 1/2 lengths behind the leading Justify with a furlong to go. Good Magic ran his heart out, but could never close the gap and had to settle for second. Audible finished third.
In the Belmont, Gronkowski was two lengths behind the leading Justify with a furlong to go. Gronkowski ran his heart out, but could never close the gap and had to settle for second. Hofburg finished third.
Chad Brown had taken over from Jeremy Noseda as Gronkowski’s trainer last month. You certainly can appreciate Brown’s frustration with Justify’s emergence on the scene this year. Brown, who has been voted 2016 and 2017 Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer, also conditions Good Magic, who was honored with a 2017 Eclipse Award of his own as champion 2-year-old male.
If not for Justify, Good Magic might have been the one going for a Triple Crown in the Belmont. With no Justify, Good Magic more than likely would have won the Kentucky Derby. In the Preakness, Good Magic took it to Justify right away. The pair became embroiled in a prolonged tussle for the lead that lasted all the way to deep stretch when Justify finally put away Good Magic. Good Magic finished fourth, but lost by only a length. If there had been no Justify to duel with in the Preakness, Good Magic might well have won.
It seems that how one judged Justify’s Preakness effort determined to a large degree whether or not one picked him to win the Belmont Stakes. A lot of people who went against Justify in the Belmont said they were doing so because Justify had won the Preakness by only a half-length.
Other naysayers cited Justify’s declining speed figures going into the Belmont, though this might well have been mitigated by Justify having to cope with wet tracks in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Those who knocked Justify’s Preakness because he did not win by a larger margin or record a higher speed figure missed the boat by not appreciating that he actually ran a terrific race under the circumstances. When Good Magic went on the attack early in the race, Justify never got a breather during the entire 1 3/16 miles. Few horses can win any race, let alone a Triple Crown race, without ever getting a breather.
Smith would say of Justify’s Preakness to Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman on his radio show Thoroughbred Los Angeles: “Sometimes you gotta win ugly. Even the great Secretariat got beat. This is a horse who was in a dogfight for a good seven-eighths of a mile and still held off the competition. We should be commending him and not looking at him winning by only half a length.”
Even though Justify’s did not win the Preakness by a larger margin, his gallop-out after the finish seemed to indicate the race might not have taken as much out of him as many thought. Smith later said that Justify “wanted to gallop out” after the finish, with the rider emphasizing the word “wanted.” Smith said Justify “actually galloped out really well.”
Another good sign following the Preakness was that Justify, who has been called a “chow hound,” reportedly ate everything with his usual enthusiasm in his first meal after the race. Once Justify resumed training after the Preakness, the zeal he exhibited day after day in the lead-up to the Belmont gave every indication that he had not lost his mojo and would be hard to beat.
Horseplayers often talk about getting value. Justify was installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite. XBTV’s Jeff Siegel was one of many who said Justify would be “1-5 or 2-5” in the Belmont. Others said Justify would be 3-5. Siegel was right that Justify probably should have been 1-5 or 2-5. That’s almost certainly what Justify would have been had he won the Preakness by daylight instead of by the smallest margin of his career.
But when Justify did not win the Preakness by a larger margin and recorded his lowest Beyer Speed Figure of 97 in that race, he ended up being an even bigger price than 3-5 in the Belmont. The difference between 1-5, 2-5, 3-5 and 4-5 is not inconsequential for anyone making a substantial wager to win. If you bet $200 to win, you make a $40 profit at 1-5, $80 at 2-5 or $120 at 3-5. With Justify going off at 4-5 and paying $3.60, you made a $160 profit, which is a whole lot better than the $40 or $80 profit Siegel said you would get.
As for the Belmont Stakes, with Good Magic skipping it, Brown said he “was proud” of the race that Gronkowski ran.
“He had a lot of things against him,” Brown said. “It was his first time running on dirt and his first time going a mile and a half. He also was coming off a layoff.
“It’s one of those Triple Crowns where I had two really good horses. I think in each race, I had the second-best horse…Justify is a top horse and he won the Triple Crown…We ran into a real buzz saw.”
Yes, at the finish of this year’s Belmont Stakes, once again it was all hail the buzz saw -- a big, grand-looking chestnut colt with a white blaze by the name of Justify, who came home the last quarter in :25.28 to complete his 1 1/2-mile journey in 2:28.18. Super J prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths to remain perfect in six career starts while becoming the newest member of the exclusive Triple Crown club.
With a quarter of a mile remaining, the answer as to whether there was enough fuel in Justify’s tank was answered emphatically in the affirmative. As the long-striding equine athlete made his way down the Belmont Park stretch to the roar of the crowd, perhaps some of the blood of the numerous Belmont Stakes winners in his family tree kicked in.
These Belmont Stakes winners are in Justify’s pedigree: American Flag (1925), Johnstown (1939), Bimelech (1940), Count Fleet (1943), Native Dancer (1953), Nashua (1955), Gallant Man (1957), Sword Dancer (1959), Damascus (1967), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and A.P. Indy (1992). Another of Justify’s prominent ancestors is 1970 English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II.
Justify’s dam, Stage Magic, is a daughter of 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, trained by Bobby Frankel, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. Prior to Frankel’s death in 2009, he said he felt the best horse he ever trained was Ghostzapper, who joined Frankel in the Hall of Fame in 2012.
Justify’s meteroric rise from being an unraced maiden in February to a Triple Crown winner in June is nothing less than miraculous. Do you remember “The Miracle on Ice?” That was when the United States men’s hockey team, while on its way to a gold medal, upset the supposedly unbeatable Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. What Justify has done during the first half of 2018 really is “The Miracle on Dirt.”
Baffert certainly has reached the pinnacle of his profession. When Justify succeeded in the Belmont, it was Baffert’s 15th win in a Triple Crown race to become the all-time leader in that category.
Baffert and the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons now are the only two trainers to win the Triple Crown twice. Baffert also won the coveted series in 2015 with American Pharoah, who quenched racing’s 37-year thirst for a Triple Crown winner. Fitzsimmons achieved the feat with Gallant Fox in 1930, then with Gallant Fox’s son Omaha in 1935.
“Unbelievable training job, one of the greatest of all time,” Brown is quoted as saying by Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden with regard to what Baffert has done with Justify. “Just adds to another incredible accomplishment to an incredible career.”
THE CLUES WERE THERE FOR ALL TO SEE
There were clues galore along the way that Justify might reach such lofty heights.
The first public clue was when Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle raved about Justify on Steve Byk’s radio program At the Races on Friday, Feb. 16, two days before the colt’s first race. Hammerle later would reveal that Baffert had visited him in his office that morning. Baffert was interested more than usual in a Feb. 18 maiden race getting a sufficient number of entries to not get called off. When Hammerle inquired as to what was so important about this particular race, Baffert let the cat out of the bag and said he had a colt entered in it who could win the Kentucky Derby. The seven-furlong maiden race did come close to being called off, but it went with five entries. When Justify won by 9 1/2 lengths, he had stardom written all over him.
The next clue was what Baffert said to Willman immediately after Justify’s maiden victory. Baffert said that it was “not too late” to get Justify to the Kentucky Derby, with the trainer adding that he “had a plan.”
It later would be learned that Baffert’s “plan” was to run Justify next in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Santa Anita on March 11. Again, there was a possibility the race would not get enough entries. Baffert talked publicly about sending Justify to the March 25 Sunland Derby in New Mexico, but that was a red herring in an attempt to get the March 11 Santa Anita race to go. Again, the March 11 race came close to being called off, but again it went with five entries. And again Justify won impressively, this time cruising to a 6 1/2-length win on a muddy track.
Another clue early this year that Justify just might be a major player in a certain race on the first Saturday in May was the more aggressive approach Baffert was taking with him compared to Arrogate and West Coast.
The year after American Pharoah swept the 2015 Triple Crown for Baffert, the trainer took his time with 3-year-old Arrogate early in 2016. Arrogate did not race as a 2-year-old. The patience of not pushing Arrogate to run in any of the Triple Crown races paid dividends when his productive second half of the year produced a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
Baffert likewise took his time with 3-year-old West Coast early in 2017. West Coast did not race at 2. The patience of not pushing West Coast to run in any of the Triple Crown races paid dividends when his productive second half of the year produced a 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
Considering Arrogate and West Coast both earned an Eclipse Award after not racing at 2 and being brought along patiently early at 3, when Baffert made it known early this year that he had the Kentucky Derby in mind for Justify, it was a whopper of a clue as to what would later occur. By not taking the same patient approach with Justify that Baffert did with Arrogate and West Coast, the trainer was conveying his confidence in Justify that this 3-year-old had the physical tools and demeanor to run in and possibly win the Kentucky Derby despite his lack of experience.
There was yet another clue in February that Justify should be taken very seriously vis-a-vis the Run for the Roses. At that time Baffert was plotting a path for Justify to the Kentucky Derby even though the trainer already had a top prospect for that prized race in McKinzie. Baffert has admitted that he had such a high opinion of McKinzie early this year that he “was thinking Triple Crown” with him.
Baffert planned to run McKinzie in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby and send Justify to the April 14 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. But on March 31, Baffert disclosed that what appeared to be a minor hind leg injury meant McKinze would have to miss the Santa Anita Derby. After Justify worked six furlongs in 1:13.20 at Santa Anita on April 2, Baffert announced that Justify would be running in the Santa Anita Derby instead of going to Arkansas. Sent away as the 4-5 favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, Justify won by three lengths over multiple Grade I winner Bolt d’Oro, the even-money second choice.
Two days after the Santa Anita Derby, there was still another clue that actually shouted out to the racing world that Justify might have some really consequential victories in his future. Baffert said on Byk’s radio show that Justify “is just a phenomenal talent.” Baffert is not one to make such a statement lightly. A rather superstitious fellow, Baffert never would have talked up Justify that much unless there was a good chance the colt would not let his conditioner down in the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, it is quite significant that Baffert is someone who’s in a position to be spot on when saying a horse “is just a phenomenal talent” inasmuch as the white-haired horseman has had such champions as Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Silverbulletday, Point Given, Vindication, War Emblem, Midnight Lute, Indian Blessing, Lookin At Lucky, American Pharoah, Arrogate, West Coast and Abel Tasman, plus Game On Dude, the only horse to win the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap three times.
A month after Baffert said Justify “is just a phenomenal talent,” the colt became the first Kentucky Derby winner who did not race as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, all three of Justify’s starts had come at Santa Anita. He became first horse in more than 100 years to win the Run for the Roses having previously raced at only one track. The last horse to do it was the great filly Regret, whose three career starts before the Kentucky Derby all had come at Saratoga the year before.
Justify also became only the third horse in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby to win it having made three or fewer career starts. The only two to do it previously were Regret in 1915 and Big Brown in 2008.
Justify’s victory in the Belmont Stakes came 45 years to the day after Secretariat’s tour de force in the 1973 renewal. As Secretariat was drawing away to a huge lead on the far turn, Chic Anderson described it in his unforgettable call of the race for the CBS television audience by saying, “He is moving like a tremendous machine!” That 31-length triumph, in which Secretariat posted a phenomenal final time of 2:24 flat, is widely regarded as the greatest race any Thoroughbred has ever run in this country.
In fifths of a second, Justify’s final time in the Belmont was 2:28 flat. If you go by the often-used formula that a fifth of a second equals a length, Secretariat would have beaten Justify by about 20 lengths. But Justify in no way, shape or form should be condemned for that. With Secretariat’s 2:24 a record that is expected to stand forever, most agree he probably would have trounced any racehorse who has ever lived on that particular occasion other than maybe mighty Man o’ War.
Justify was assigned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Belmont Stakes. Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes pre-dates Daily Racing Form’s publication of Beyer Speed Figures, but Andrew Beyer once retroactively calculated Secretariat to have run a 139 in the Belmont.
These are the Beyer Speed Figures for Baffert’s starters in the Belmont who finished first or second:
2018 Justify (won by 1 3/4 lengths, 101 Beyer)
2015 American Pharoah (won by 5 1/2 lengths, 105)
2012 Paynter (second, lost by a neck, 96)
2001 Point Given (won by 12 1/4 lengths, 114)
1998 Real Quiet (second, lost by a nose, 110)
1997 Silver Charm (second, lost by 3/4 of a length, 109)
The good news for Justify is after he dipped to a career-low 97 in the Preakness, he did rebound to register a triple-digit in the Belmont. In order, starting with Justify’s maiden win, he has recorded Beyers of 104, 101, 107, 103, 97 and 101 for an average of 102.1. American Pharoah’s average for his seven victories through the Belmont Stakes was 102.7.
Though Justify’s performance last Saturday on the Belmont Park racing stage down the road a piece from Broadway will not be remembered for its final time or margin of victory, he did managed to break a number of records while continuing to treat historical precedence with disdain.
Justify now holds the record for defeating the most opponents in the Belmont Stakes of any Triple Crown winner.
This is how many opponents the 13 Triple Crown winners have defeated in the Belmont:
9 Justify (2018)
7 American Pharoah (2015)
7 Seattle Slew (1977)
7 Citation (1948)
6 Assault (1946)
6 War Admiral (1937)
4 Affirmed (1978)
4 Secretariat (1973)
4 Omaha (1935)
3 Whirlaway (1941)
3 Gallant Fox (1930)
2 Count Fleet (1943)
2 Sir Barton (1919)
Justify now holds the record for defeating the most total starters in the three Triple Crown races. This is how many starters combined each Triple Crown defeated in the series:
35 Justify (2018)
32 War Admiral (1937)
31 American Pharoah (2015)
31 Assault (1946)
29 Seattle Slew (1977)
28 Omaha (1935)
27 Gallant Fox (1930)
24 Sir Barton (1919)
21 Secretariat (1973)
20 Affirmed (1978)
20 Whirlaway (1941)
15 Citation (1948)
14 Count Fleet (1943)
With Justify’s victory in the Belmont, he also:
--Became the first Triple Crown winner who did not race as a 2-year-old.
--Joined Seattle Slew as the only two horses to sweep the Triple Crown with an undefeated record.
--Became only the second Triple Crown winner sold previously at public auction. Seattle Slew was a $17,500 yearling. Justify was a $500,000 yearling.
Justify, seemingly in the blink of an eye, has won all six of his starts at six different distances from seven furlongs to 1 1/2 miles while racing in California, Kentucky, Maryland and New York. Super J has won on three fast tracks, two sloppy tracks and one muddy track.
Not even the possibility of bad karma stemming from a change of silks could stop Justify from winning the Belmont. Justify races for WinStar Farm (major shareholder), China Horse Club International, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners.
When Justify captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Smith wore WinStar’s mostly white silks. But with the owners tempting fate, Smith donned China Horse Club’s red and yellow silks in the Belmont.
“The China Horse Club and WinStar Farm share the use of colors on the horses we race in partnership,” Eden Harrington, vice president of the China Horse Club, told Sue Finley of the Thoroughbred Daily News. “Every fourth start, a horse will race in China Horse Club silks. The sharing of silks ensures both the WinStar brand and China Horse Club brand are promoted.”
Thus, it was the China Horse Club’s silks that Smith wore when becoming the oldest jockey to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown. It is the red and yellow silks of the China Horse Club visible on Justify’s plaque that is displayed in the Belmont Park infield along with the other 12 Triple Crown winners.
Justify now is odds-on to be the 2018 Horse of the Year. He also is a cinch to make Baffert the first trainer in history to train four consecutive Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old males (American Pharoah in 2015, Arrogate in 2016, West Coast in 2017, Justify in 2018).
Baffert has referred to American Pharoah as being an equine version of Michael Jordan, while saying Justify is LeBron James. But while James’ Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last week, Justify did complete a Triple Crown sweep with his front-running victory in the Belmont Stakes. And it is a slam-dunk that the ride Justify took Thoroughbred racing on from his career debut on Feb. 18 to Triple Crown glory on June 9 will long be remembered.