Priceless Moment

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The day before Justify’s date with Triple Crown destiny in the 150th Belmont Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert made the short walk from Barn 1 in the Belmont Park stable area to the main track gap to stake out a spot to watch the red colt’s final gallop before his run at history.

Baffert walked with a relaxed purpose – not overly fast yet not overly leisurely – flanked by family, friends, writers, photographers and representatives of Justify’s ownership group. Once he reached his preferred spot, the Hall of Fame trainer leaned his lower back against the white-paint chipped round rail and tried to relax.

A few minutes later he looked to the sky, spotting a TV station helicopter taking a short break from a morning traffic report to show some aerial footage of the undefeated Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner take his penultimate steps on Belmont’s sandy dirt track. The final journey would come more than 24 hours later, in front of fans that poured into Belmont from the streets, highways and rails.

Once the water trucks and a set of tractors went past, Baffert took four steps out onto the track and felt the soft cushion as his brown cowboy boots pressed into the sandy loam.

“It’s deep; it’s deep,” said Baffert, turning around and looking for his young son and aspiring weatherman. “Where’s Bode? We need some rain.”

The forecast early in the week calling for rain – which would have given the Triple Crown a distinctive wet flavor following the deluges in Louisville and Baltimore – evaporated by this point. The rain would stay away this time and Justify, who won the Belmont in another front-running power performance to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, walked onto the track at 8:49 a.m. to the clicks of cameras and audible gasps of fans and onlookers who might have missed his distinct muscular presence at the classics’ first two stops.

Baffert pressed his binoculars to his face as Justify made his way around the clubhouse turn, exercise rider Humberto Gomez riding high alongside assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes aboard Baffert’s stable pony Sunny.

“It’s a long way around there, I always forget,” Baffert said. “Whew, I’m not fit enough to hold my binoculars up the whole time.”

Justify eventually came back into his Hall of Fame trainer’s view, at about the 3/8ths pole several paths off the fence. The powerful chestnut son of Scat Daddy cut the corner into Belmont’s long stretch, changed leads on Gomez’s cues and looked the picture floating past Baffert and his entourage. Justify walked of the track just before 9 a.m., Barnes and Sunny again leading the way before the short walk home around the outer horse path.

A monster throng of media followed Baffert and Co. back to the barn and many of them greeted him about an hour later in the first floor of the clubhouse for a short press conference. Baffert said what’s expected in the presser, talking about the task at hand, three races in five weeks, how Justify needed a clean break, comparing him to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, all the usual stuff.

The final questions from the group inquired about his relationship with Elliott Walden, the president and CEO of WinStar Farm and former trainer who spoiled Baffert’s Triple Crown bid with Real Quiet in 1998 with Victory Gallop. The answer was again of the vanilla variety, before Baffert parted with a statement that cut to the core of the Triple Crown experience.

“It’s been really smooth, it’s a great group, a fun group, they have a passion for it and they love it,” Baffert said, referring to Walden dealing with the ownership group. “They can’t believe this ride they’re on. I just love looking at their faces after we win a big one, fortunately I’ve been there, and they’re walking around like, ‘can you believe this?’

“That’s what makes this sport so wonderful. It’s priceless. You cannot put a price on the feeling and the emotion of winning these races. That’s why we love it.”

Justify is nothing short of priceless now, after winning his sixth race in succession without a defeat and becoming the second Triple Crown winner in four years and 13th overall. Certainly dollar amounts have been attached to the colt – some estimates put his value as a stallion prospect in the neighborhood of $75 million – and if his accomplishments are not priceless they definitely are remarkable.

A mere 112 days stretched between the start of Justify’s career – a Sunday afternoon maiden race going 7 furlongs Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park – and his tour de force in front of 90,327 raucous fans at the Belmont Stakes. He joined Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown winners and put his name alongside such other legends as Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, Whirlaway and Gallant Fox as winners of the series that captures the attention of the American public like no other racing event by a wide margin.

Baffert also moved into rare air with his 15th classic win – emerging from a tie for the all-time lead with D. Wayne Lukas – and put his name with James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers with two Triple Crown winners on their resume. Fitzsimmons did it in a five-year stretch, with Gallant Fox and his son Omaha in 1930 and 1935, respectively, while Baffert did it in four with American Pharoah in 2015 and now Justify.

The opportunity to showcase his talents on the big stage drives Baffert, particularly when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. It all starts there and he’s won the race five times, second most all time.

“I’d like to go through this again,” Baffert said the day before this year’s Belmont. “It’s fun just knowing you might have a Kentucky Derby horse. That’s what you live for. We’re getting our 2-year-olds in right now, starting to get excited about them. When we buy horses it’s like, ‘what do you think, should we buy this horse?’ You’ve got to use the D word a lot (with owners), ‘he might be a Derby horse, I don’t know, you better raise your hand one more time.’ ”

Early Signs

Justify showed Baffert he might be a Kentucky Derby horse in January, shortly after he moved from his second string at Los Alamitos Race Course to the trainer’s main barn at Santa Anita. He breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 Jan. 29 and Baffert dared let the thought of the Derby creep into his mind.

The thoughts turned a bit more serious when Justify broke his maiden and really ramped up when he ran his record to 2-for-2 in a 1-mile race in the mud March 11.

The Belmont Stakes, run on about as nice a day as there’s been in the Northeast this spring, was a long ways off at that point but Baffert considered himself “live” for the spring classics at that point. Justify stamped himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite 27 days later when he beat Bolt d’Oro easily in the Santa Anita Derby.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness – both run on wet tracks after heavy rains saturated came next. The Derby win beat history as Justify became the first winner of the Louisville classic to not race as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882, while the Preakness victory was more workmanlike after a stern battle with Good Magic through the Baltimore fog.

Justify returned to Churchill Downs after his Preakness victory and trained with similar enthusiasm that American Pharoah showed between the second and third jewels in 2015. He breezed a fast half-mile in :46.80 the day after Memorial Day before returning with a 5-furlong move in 1:01.40 the Monday before the Belmont.

“I don’t really feel a lot of pressure. I feel pressure if I feel that the horse might be getting tired … the horse has not shown me any signs of regression whatsoever and if he did we would not have brought him up here,” Baffert said the day before the Belmont. “To me it’s very important that he’s doing well. He’s a very valuable and beautiful horse and the last thing I want to do is embarrass him. He’s been so good to us and it’s been a great journey. He seems like he’s getting better.”

The belief that Justify was improving – despite naysayers who looked only at the half-length margin over Bravazo in the Preakness and not the manner he and Mike Smith held the field at bay – was not good news for the nine others entered in the Belmont. Six were beaten by Justify in the Derby or the Preakness, or in Bravazo’s case both, without a valid excuse worth its salt aside from the wet tracks. The three new shooters – European invader Gronkowski, Blended Citizen and Justify’s stablemate Restoring Hope – also looked overmatched.

Big Day

Belmont buzzed all morning and into the early afternoon as the fans packed into one of the world’s great racing cathedrals. A spectacular undercard was served up as an appetizer to the fans on track and wagering from near and far, a card that featured five other Grade 1 stakes and 10 stakes in total.

Baffert, who won four stakes on last year’s Belmont Day program, picked right up where he left off by sending out Abel Tasman to victory in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps. Two races later Team Baffert celebrated a second victory with barn favorite Hoppertunity in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap at the same 12-furlong trip as the Belmont.

Smith rode Abel Tasman, last year’s champion 3-year-old filly and winner of the Kentucky Oaks among other Grade 1s, but Flavien Prat guided Hoppertunity. Baffert joked that he wanted to name Smith on Hoppertunity, but didn’t want to “tire him out” with the task at hand yet to come aboard Justify.

Smith, who continues to show no signs of his more than 52 years on the earth, rode only the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan in between the Phipps and the Belmont. Smith delivered the perfect ride aboard Justify, hustling the colt from his inside post to establish position early while Restoring Hope ranged up early after breaking a half-step slow.

Justify settled into a smooth rhythm around the first turn, clicked off a quarter-mile in :23.37 and a half in :48.11 while Restoring Hope, Bravazo, Tenfold, Noble Indy and Hofburg tried to keep up. Justify opened up 2 lengths up the back, past 6 furlongs in 1:13.21 and the mile in 1:38.09.

The large crowd anticipated something special around the far turn as Vino Rosso made the first serious run at Justify, only to be quickly turned back. Gronkowski, a colt named for New England Patriot’s party-loving tight end Rob Gronkowski who earned an automatic bid to the Kentucky Derby before withdrawing with an injury, made a sustained run up the inside to challenge next. Last through the opening 6 furlongs after breaking slow, Jose Ortiz guided Gronkowski into contention and up the inside, briefly looking like he might sneak through and foil Justify’s Triple Crown bid.

Past a quarter-pole in 2:02.90, Justify opened up again as the crowd readied for one final outburst. They let it rip just as Justify left the opposition in his wake, hollering at full throat as Justify rolled past the finish 1 3/4 lengths in front of Gronkowski. Hofburg made a wide run to finish the same margin back in third and a neck in front of Vino Rosso. Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy were no match and a part of history as the vanquished rivals of the latest Triple Crown winner.

“Turning for home, you could just tell this horse, he just finds, the great ones, they just find another gear,” Baffert said. “I really didn’t get excited probably until the last 100 (yards), a sixteenth of a mile where I knew he was home free and started to really enjoy the race.”

 Bred in Kentucky by John Gunther out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, Justify was a $500,000 buy at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale by China Horse Club and WinStar’s Maverick Racing. He collected $800,000 for the Belmont win and increased his earnings to $3,798,000.

A sign with the name Justify and China Horse Club’s red and yellow silks went up shortly after the race was declared official, alongside the other 12 Triple Crown winners.

Smith, who had won each of the Triple Crown races in different years prior to 2018, said it all when asked in the post-race press conference where Justify ranked among the legends of the game.

“Are you asking me? I think he’s the greatest of all time,” Smith said. “I just won the Triple Crown, man. He’s my champion.”

Justify also became the people’s champion in the Belmont.

Certain to be named Horse of the Year – each of the four Triple Crown winners earned the honor since the Eclipse Awards were inaugurated in 1971 – Justify is sure to attract a crowd no matter where he shows up next. He appeared on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated and was the lead story in numerous news outlets. Justify is now certain to be the source of great speculation – will he run in the Haskell and Travers like American Pharoah, will he stand at WinStar or be sold for millions to stand at another farm and so on.

Those answers will come down the road. In the immediate aftermath of the moment, that priceless moment, the always-composed Baffert found himself overwhelmed.

“Well, I was weeping when they interviewed me,” he said. “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.”

“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, but that horse … 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.”