Horse on the Wall: Justify joins the greats

- -

Modern, sleek, straight-out-of-a-new-college-building plaques commemorating the true greats of Thoroughbred racing hang on either side of the interview room in the Belmont Park basement. Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway and Count Fleet line up on the east wall. The west side completes the dozen with Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and – near the door – American Pharoah.

And now the place is going to need bigger walls.

Justify became Thoroughbred racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner Saturday – playing catch me if you can (or can’t) with nine rivals and roaring home by 1 3/4 lengths over longshot Gronkowski with Hofburg third. A crowd of 90,327 pushed the big chestnut through 1 1/2 miles in 2:28.18 and the team of trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Mike Smith and the ownership group of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners went along for the ride. For the second time in four runnings, after going 37 years without one, racing has a Triple Crown winner.

Justify joined the Baffert-trained American Pharoah (2015) on racing’s rarest honor roll, rising from maiden in February to future Hall of Famer by June. Tall, leggy, white-faced, big-shouldered Justify joined Seattle Slew as an undefeated Triple Crown winner – improving to 6-for-6. The skein began at Santa Anita Feb. 18, a 9 1/2-length maiden win going 7 furlongs. Next he smacked around allowance foes by 6 1/2 March 11. Sent to the Santa Anita Derby in just his third start, Justify won by 3 April 7. The Kentucky Derby came next, and he won by 2 1/2 at Churchill Downs May 5. Then it was on to Pimlico, and a half-length win in the Preakness May 19. The train came to the $1.5 million Belmont Saturday, and didn’t stop.

As Baffert put it, his horse declared a strategy early – “Pass me to win.”

JustifyBelmontBreakJustify and Mike Smith take flight away from the starting gate in the Belmont Stakes. Tod Marks photoWith Smith recalling his Quarter Horse roots and getting low in his stirrups, Justify bounded from his inside post like a cat after a squirrel in the backyard – low, quick, a little to his left toward the rail and faster than anyone else in the race. Baffert trainee Restoring Hope broke a step slow from post five, but responded to Florent Geroux and headed to the lead while traveling wide into the first turn. Behind him came Bravazo, Tenfold on the rail and Noble Indy to the outside. Next came Vino Rosso, Hofburg, Free Drop Billy, Blended Citizen and Gronkowski well back in last.

As Justify got the first quarter-mile in :23.37, Restoring Hope galloped off the leader’s quarter with Preakness runner-up Bravazo third on the inside and Vino Rosso fourth. The pace slowed a little and the half passed in :48.11 with Justify up front.

Upstairs in the box seats, Baffert watched the clock.

“Boy, that’s fast,” the trainer said of the first quarter. “But he slowed it down, and I saw :48, felt a little bit better. I was looking, I was talking to Jill, my wife, the whole way, and I said if we can get about a 13.3, 13.4, we’re OK, and I think we had 13.1.”

Justify did indeed get 6 furlongs in 1:13.21, and extended his lead to 2 lengths on the sprawling final turn. Restoring Hope hung around for a few strides, but was soon tackled by Vino Rosso who got to the leader’s girth. Behind him, Gronkowski passed horses along the rail and Hofburg unspooled a bid from the outside. After a mile in 1:38 on a loose rein, Justify pushed away from Vino Rosso. The only horse making up real ground was the 24-1 Gronkowski along the rail.

Off the turn, Justify straightened up, nailed the change to his right lead and set sail. The moment brought to mind, in Baffert and Smith, a conversation from a few nights earlier.

“I just hope when you turn for home, you’re just sitting on him,” trainer told jockey. “If you’re hitting him at the top of the stretch, I know we’re in deep water.”

Smith thought of it too.

“Bob is telling me right now, don’t go to that whip yet, just keep hand riding, keep hand riding,” Smith said of his mindset. “I know what he’s saying, and then he’s telling me, ‘Now, would you just do it now?’ ”

Smith slapped Justify on the right shoulder five times and got an immediate response of longer strides and a bigger advantage on Gronkowski and Hofburg. Smith finally turned over his whip inside the final furlong and Justify saw it out from there – putting a Belmont capper on his wins in the Derby and Preakness.

Baffert joined Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935) as a trainer of two Triple Crown winners, and won a record 15th classic, with a horse unraced as a 2-year-old. Purchased for $500,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September, the son of Scat Daddy and the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic was always going to be a little late – on size alone – but trained early at WinStar and later at Keeneland. WinStar chose Baffert for his success with 3-year-olds, and the tight schedule.

“One of the things that I thought was important was we were behind the 8-ball,” said WinStar’s Elliott Walden. “We do focus on the 3-year-old classics, not that every horse we have is going to run there, but you certainly want to try to give him an opportunity. The weather in California is very consistent. He was going in to training late. I thought that was something that was a consideration. And again, he looked like a very good horse, and we tried to hire a very good trainer. Maybe the greatest of all time.”

Baffert weathered Belmont Stakes defeats with Triple Crown hopefuls Silver Charm (in 1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) before breaking through with American Pharoah in 2015 and now Justify. Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm but then a trainer, denied Real Quiet’s bid (by a nose) with Victory Gallop. Saturday, in front of those plaques in the interview room, Walden tried to put it into perspective.

“I’ve said it, that Real Quiet didn’t belong, not because he wasn’t a really good horse, but he just wasn’t a Triple Crown winner because Victory Gallop beat him, and Victory Gallop was a good horse,” said Walden. “A lot of good horses we’ve been blessed with, but to be great, to be a Triple Crown winner, it takes something special.”

As it did in 2015, cavernous Belmont Park roared like a much smaller place as the Triple Crown arrived once again – a place and a sport releasing the joy of achievement after 37 years in one case and just three in another.

“I really didn’t get excited probably until the last 100 (yards) – sixteenth-of-a-mile where I knew he was home free and started to really enjoy the race,” said Baffert, whose excitement, and emotion, came later. “Well, I was weeping when they interviewed me. I got very emotional, because I really think – I’m getting help upstairs. I think of my parents, I think of all the good friends I’ve lost, and I know they’re up there. I really believe in that, that they’re helping me out, they’re giving me that little push. I think things happen for a reason. If it was meant to be, it was meant to be. I knew this horse was doing well. We had him ready . . . it was just . . . just to train a horse like that, he’s just a magnificent animal. I’m just glad that I got a chance to train a horse like that.”

A horse good – no, great – enough for those interview-room walls.

JustifyBelmontStretchJustify (right) keeps the field at bay late in the Belmont Stakes. Tod Marks photo