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Where Does Justify Rank Among The Greats?

by Jon White

July 18, 2018

Bob Baffert won the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah and again this year with Justify. Is Justify better than American Pharoah or vice versa? One way or another, that question has been posed to Baffert numerous times. Not surprisingly, the Hall of Fame trainer has been restrained in offering his opinion.

However, last Friday on the radio program Inside Churchill Downs, Darren Rogers was able to shed some light on the matter. Rogers is the senior director of communications and media services at the Louisville venue that serves as the home of the Kentucky Derby.

Justify was paraded at Churchill Downs on June 16. Baffert voluntarily said something quite interesting that evening to Rogers vis-a-vis American Pharoah and Justify. Baffert said that if he robbed a bank and Justify and American Pharoah both were standing outside the bank, Justify is the one Baffert would hop on to escape. 

Baffert’s comment certainly indicates that he is of the opinion that Justify is better than American Pharoah. But even if that’s the case, I just can’t rank Justify higher than American Pharoah among the all-time greats at this point because Justify has made only six lifetime starts.

Justify’s future currently is up in the air. His connections announced last week that some filling in his left front ankle was discovered. Perhaps Justify will race again. But now there is a distinct possibility that he will not.

According to Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman, Baffert has said Del Mar’s Pacific Classic on Aug. 18 and Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 both are out for Justify.

Justify currently is in a “holding pattern,” Baffert was quoted as saying in Monday’s Del Mar stable notes.

“We should know more in a couple of weeks,” Baffert added.

As I noted last week, after the news broke that Justify had a filling in an ankle, future book wagering on the 2018 BC Classic was suspended at the Wynn in Las Vegas by Racebook and Sportsbook director John Avello.

BC Classic future book wagering resumed at the Wynn last weekend. Justify was taken off the board at the Wynn, which also is the case at betting shops in England offering future book wagering on the BC Classic.

The Wynn has West Coast as the 5-1 BC Classic favorite. The others at 20-1 or lower are Collected at 8-1, Thunder Snow at 9-1, Accelerate at 10-1, Good Magic at 10-1, Pavel at 12-1, Mendelssohn at 14-1, Tapwrit at 18-1 and Gronkowski at 20-1.

If Justify’s racing career is over, his standing among the all-time greats undoubtedly will be negatively impacted by his not having made more than six total starts. But I won’t hold it against him as much as others who are out of step with the new reality of the sport in that they are hypercritical of our contemporary horses for not having raced more.

The BloodHorse magazine in 1999 announced its Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. A distinguished group participated in the formulation of that list. The panel consisted of racing secretary Howard Battle, racing secretary Lenny Hale, writer Jay Hovdey, writer William Nack, steward Pete Pedersen, writer Jennie Rees and racing secretary Tommy Trotter.

For the past several years, I have been issuing my own list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries to have raced in North America. My list, updated from time to time, goes beyond the BloodHorse’s list because it includes horses to have raced in this century.

When I updated my list prior to American Pharoah’s final race in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic, I ranked him No. 21. He then won the BC Classic by an emphatic 6 1/2 lengths. After American Pharoah dominated older horses in the BC Classic, I moved him up to No. 15. That goes to show just how important a win like American Pharoah’s in the BC Classic can be in terms of a horse’s standing among the all-time greats.

Regarding my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries, if a horse’s body of work isn’t extensive, I do penalize the horse to some extent. But I also believe a horse deserves to get credit for whatever he or she may have accomplished and the talent he or she demonstrated.

Because our contemporary horses do not race nearly as much as their earlier peers once did, I do not think it is fair to hold them to the same standard as we did prior to 2000 in terms of lifetime starts. But I feel it is a balancing act. I also do not want to go too far when giving credit to our more lightly raced contemporary horses because to do that would not be fair to those in the past who did race a lot. 

Some people seem to judge our contemporary horses much too harshly for not having raced more. An excellent example of this, I think, is Rags to Riches, who in 2007 became the first filly to win the Belmont Stakes in 102 years.

Yes, it’s true that Rags to Riches made only seven lifetime starts. No doubt that is a major reason why she is not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, even though Rags to Riches first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013, she has yet to even appear on the ballot, which is an abomination. There are those on the Hall of Fame’s Nominating Committee who evidently are downgrading Rags to Riches far too much for not racing more than she did.

Rags to Riches is one of only four fillies to have won a Triple Crown race in the last 94 years. The other three fillies to do so -- Genuine Risk (1980 Kentucky Derby), Winning Colors (1988 Kentucky Derby) and Rachel Alexandra (2009 Preakness) -- are all in the Hall of Fame.

While Rags to Riches only started seven times, she did win four Grade I races, which is more than both Genuine Risk (three) and Winning Colors (three) and just one fewer than Rachel Alexandra (five).

I have Rags to Riches ranked No. 89 on my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

As far as Justify is concerned, my initial thought was to put him either right ahead or right below American Pharoah, who is No. 15. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that, with only six career starts at this point, Justify just does not deserve to be ranked as high as American Pharoah.

I then had to determine how much lower on my list than American Pharoah do I believe Justify should go. How much should I dock Justify for the brevity of his resume and the fact that he has never run against older horses?

I decided that I could not rank him higher than Tom Fool at 16, Buckpasser at 17, Round Table at 18, Seabiscuit at 19, War Admiral at 20, Colin at 21, John Henry at 22, Damascus at 23 or Zenyatta at 24.

When I reached 25, I felt that I had reached the point at which I was comfortable putting Justify. And just as American Pharoah did move up the list following his BC Classic triumph, Justify likewise still has an opportunity to be ranked higher than 30 if he were to continue racing and, say, win the BC Classic.

Here now is my up-to-date list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries to have raced in North America (in parenthesis, when applicable, is where the horse ranked on The Blood-Horse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century):

    1. Man o’ War (1)

    2. Secretariat*(2)

    3. Citation* (3)

    4. Kelso (4)

    5. Spectacular Bid (10)

    6. Native Dancer (7)

    7. Dr. Fager (6)

    8. Seattle Slew* (9)

    9. Count Fleet* (5)

  10. Affirmed* (12)

  11. Ruffian (35)

  12. Swaps (20)

  13. Phar Lap (22)

  14. Forego (8)

  15. American Pharoah*

  16. Tom Fool (11)

  17. Buckpasser (14)

  18. Round Table (17)

  19. Seabiscuit (25)

  20. War Admiral* (13)

  21. Colin (15)

  22. John Henry (23)

  23. Damascus (16)

  24. Zenyatta

  25. Justify*

  26. Regret (71)

  27. Exterminator (29)

  28. Whirlaway* (26)

  29. Sunday Silence (31)

  30. Cigar (18)

  31. Bold Ruler (19)

  32. Nashua (24)

  33. Alydar (27)

  34. Easy Goer (34)

  35. Arrogate

  36. Shared Belief

  37. California Chrome

  38. Gun Runner

  39. Equipoise (21)

  40. Gallant Fox* (28)

  41. Sysonby (30)

  42. Gallant Man (36)

  43. Assault* (33)

  44. Armed (39)

  45. Sir Barton* (49)

  46. Omaha* (61)

  47. Discovery (37)

  48. Northern Dancer (43)

  49. Ack Ack (44)

  50. Majestic Prince (46)

  51. Arts and Letters (67)

  52. Alysheba (42)

  53. Personal Ensign (48)

  54. Curlin

  55. Pan Zareta

  56. Sham

  57. Rachel Alexandra

  58. Stymie (41)

  59. Challedon (38)

  60. Busher (40)

  61. Gallorette (45)

  62. All Along (68)

  63. Coaltown (47)

  64. Sword Dancer (53)

  65. Grey Lag (54)

  66. Devil Diver (55)

  67. Dahlia (50)

  68. Zev (56)

  69. Native Diver (60)

  70. Noor (69)

  71. Twilight Tear (59)

  72. Riva Ridge (57)

  73. Ta Wee (80)

  74. Shuvee (70)

  75. Holy Bull (64)

  76. Precisionist

  77. Point Given

  78. Ghostzapper

  79. Twenty Grand (52)

  80. Tiznow

  81. Skip Away (32)

  82. Alsab (65)

  83. Johnstown (73)

  84. Wise Dan

  85. Susan’s Girl (51)

  86. Genuine Risk (91)

  87. Go for Wand (72)

  88. Landaluce

  89. Rags to Riches

  90. Cicada (62)

  91. Silver Charm (63)

  92. Bald Eagle (74)

  93. Lady’s Secret (76)

  94. Slew o’ Gold (58)

  95. Hill Prince (75)

  96. Beholder

  97. Azeri

  98. Top Flight (66)

  99. Goldikova

100. Exceller (96)

*Triple Crown winner


For a very long time there was a superstition in the sport that a racehorse named after a person would not amount to anything. But then Dr. Fager came along in the 1960s and turned the superstition completely on its head.

John Nerud conditioned Dr. Fager. The horse was named after neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Fager, who saved the trainer’s life after he was thrown from a pony and suffered a blood clot on his brain. 

Half a century ago, Dr. Fager put together a campaign that still is acknowledged as one for the ages. In the BloodHorse book “Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century,” Steve Haskin wrote that Dr. Fager was “an unharnessed force of energy who recorded what many believe to be the greatest season by any racehorse in the history of the sport. By being named Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and co-champion grass horse in 1968, Dr. Fager became the first and only horse ever to win four titles in a single year.”

To be sure, Gronkowski is no Dr. Fager. But Gronkowski, who like Dr. Fager was named after a person, is a pretty darn nice colt, as evidenced by his runner-up effort in the Belmont Stakes on June 7. Gronkowski is named after football star Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.

Gronkowski the colt trailed early after a clumsy start while racing 14 lengths off the pace in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. He then generated a strong rally to finish only 1 3/4 lengths behind Justify, who became this country’s 13th Triple Crown winner. Gronkowski’s performance in the Belmont was especially admirable inasmuch as it was his first start on dirt. He had reeled off four consecutive victories on synthetic surfaces in England prior to the Belmont.

Chad Brown trains Gronkowski, who worked four furlongs in :49.24 at Belmont on June 23. However, the Kentucky-bred Lonhro colt has not had a workout since June 23 “because he had a minor issue we’re trying to get past,” Brown said in the July 8 Belmont Park notes from the NYRA press office.

Brown originally had Saratoga’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes on July 28 in mind for Gronkowski. But the colt obviously is not going to make that race. Brown said he still “would love to make the Travers” with Gronkowski, but that appears extremely unlikely to me.

The Grade I Travers Stakes will be run at Saratoga on Aug. 25. The 1 1/4-mile event was won in 2016 by Arrogate and in 2017 by West Coast. Both colts subsequently were voted an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.

Phoenix Thoroughbreds, principle owner of Gronkowski, purchased a 2-year-old Medaglia d’Oro colt for $1.2 million at public auction in May. Dennis O’Neill reportedly selected the colt. O’Neill is highly respected in terms of his success when recommending a horse to buy at a sale. Phoenix Thoroughbreds sent the colt to trainer Doug O’Neill, Dennis’ brother, in Southern California. Doug O’Neill has trained two Kentucky Derby winners, I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016.

The $1.2 million colt is expected to debut sometime during the Del Mar meet. He has had three recorded workouts, all at Santa Anita. He worked three furlongs in :38.20 on June 25, the same distance in :37.40 on July 2 and the same distance in a sharp :35.80 on July 15.

Even though the Phoenix Thoroughbreds’ 2-year-old Medaglia d’Oro colt has not raced yet, he already has attracted a lot of attention as a result of his name. Phoenix Thoroughbreds has named him Lebron J, after NBA superstar LeBron James, who has signed a four-year deal worth $154 million to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Phoenix Thoroughbreds tweeted: “Since he is so physically impressive & we hope he will be the equivalent of a rookie of the year, we have received approval from The Jockey Club to name the FasigTiptonCo Midlantic sale topper LEBRON J. Here’s hoping the Medaglia d’Oro colt can slam dunk for Team Phoneix!”

Rob Gronkowski, who earlier this year purchased an interest in the colt named after him, was in attendance at the Belmont Stakes to watch his namesake race. The two-footed Gronkowski reportedly bet $69 to place on the four-footed Gronkowski in the Belmont. When the colt finished second, he paid $13.80 to place, providing a $407.10 profit to the football player for his $69 wager.

Now that LeBron James will be playing for the Lakers, hopefully he will he come out to Santa Anita to see his namesake if the colt races there later this year or next year.

While on the subject of 2-year-olds named after a person, Jack Van Berg finished sixth at odds of 3-1 in his career debut as a maiden against winners in last Sunday’s King County Express Stakes at Emerald Downs. The To Honor and Serve colt is named after the late Hall of Fame trainer, who died last Dec. 27 at the age of 81.

Van Berg won 6,523 races to rank fourth on North America’s all-time list for trainers through Tuesday, according to Equibase. Dale Baird tops the list with 9,445 victories, following by Steve Asmussen’s 8,095 and Jerry Hollendorfer’s 7,472.

Baja Sur romped to a 10 1/2-length win as a 2-5 favorite in the 5 1/2-furlong King County Express. The Washington-bred Smiling Tiger gelding now is two for two. 

Blaine Wright trains Baja Sur. Wright won four races, including three stakes, on the Sunday card at Emerald Downs. Wright’s two other stakes victories Sunday came with Top Quality and Riser.

Top Quality won the 1 1 1/6-mile Boeing Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths as an even-money favorite. Riser led past every pole and prevailed by 2 1/4 lengths as an overwhelming 1-5 favorite in the Mt. Rainier Stakes, also at 1 1/16 miles.

Riser’s final time of 1:40.08 broke the stakes record of 1:40.20 set by Stryker Phd in 2014. Riser, a 4-year-old Ohio-bred Mizzen Mast colt, has established himself as the local favorite for the region’s biggest race, the Grade III Longacres Mile, which will be renewed on Aug. 12.


Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

  1. 419 Justify (41)

  2. 330 Accelerate

  3. 232 West Coast

  4. 214 Unique Bella

  5. 191 Mind Your Biscuits (1)

  6. 174 Bee Jersey

  7. 165 Monomoy Girl

  8. 106 Abel Tasman

  9.   81 City of Light

10.   80 Diversify