History was made on June 9, 2018 when Justify became the 13th horse in history to win the Triple Crown. The win comes just four years after American Pharoah accomplished the feat in 2015, breaking a 37-year drought. Trainer Bob Baffert has trained the last two Triple Crown winners, making his just the second trainer in history to win the title twice. The other was Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
Could Justify’s victory in the Belmont Stakes signal the age of a new Golden Era for horse racing? Things do seem to run in cycles. The 1940’s saw four horses claim the crown. In the 1970’s, Secretariat led the group of three horses that won during that decade. Now, the 2010’s has produced two Triple Crown winners with a year yet to go. In any case, fans of horse racing will remember this decade as the most exciting time for the current generation.
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Justify Wins the Belmont Stakes to Make History
Justify scored wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes to qualify at a run for the Triple Crown. Heading into the race at Belmont Park in New York, Justify was undefeated. The only horse to claim the crown while remaining undefeated was Seattle Slew in 1977.
The horse was also arriving at the Belmont Stakes as a horse that did not make his first start until the age of three. Horses that do not race at age two do not typically win the Kentucky Derby, and never win the Triple Crown. Clearly, the odds were stacked against Justify heading into the race. Yet, there was one person who firmly believed in the young colt.
Trainer Bob Baffert felt as though there was something special about Justify from the very beginning. He was impressed with the colt’s winning debut in February of 2018, and thought that Justify could make a decent showing in the Triple Crown series. Not in Baffert’s wildest dreams, however, could he have imagined winning a second Triple Crown in four years.
There were some naysayers. Despite the horse’s undefeated record, some felt as though he had been competing against a relatively weak group of three-year-old horses. This always seems to be mentioned when a horse is on the cusp of winning the title. No one really likes to think that a horse could be this special. It’s part of the mystique.
As though things weren’t tough enough, the post position draw for the Belmont Stakes didn’t do Justify any favors. He was assigned the 1 post position, long considered one of the worst starting positions for a horse in the Belmont. This starting post meant that Justify would be running against the rail. He would either have to burn early speed to clear his rivals and establish a lead, or he would have to be rated by jockey Mike Smith and attempt to make a closing run.
Smith chose the first option. When the gates broke he steered Justify to the lead while staying close to the rail. One the lead had been established, Smith settled the horse down to a pace that would hopefully hold up over the Belmont’s 1 ½ mile distance. The other horses gave chase but it was to no avail. As the horses began to enter the final turn at Belmont, Smith asked the horse for more speed. It was a decision that made Baffert nervous.
Typically, horses in the Belmont Stakes are not asked for their best effort until they are almost out of the final turn. The reason for this is the long stretch at Belmont Park. Horses that move too soon do not have the energy to complete the stretch run. Smith has been criticized in the past for poor timing, but in this case he was flawless. Justify opened up his lead and cruised into the history books as the 13th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history.
Baffert Wins the Triple Crown Again
It was just four short years ago that American Pharoah successfully made his Triple Crown run. Baffert also trained American Pharoah. Now, Baffert has trained a second Triple Crown winner in a period of four years, a feat that is only matched by the dual victories of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
With this victory, Bob Baffert can legitimately claim to be the most successful horse racing trainer in history. Some will dispute this claim, of course, but the record speaks for itself. No one has accomplished what Baffert has done since beginning his training career. The trainer came from Nogales, Arizona as an unknown and unproven trainer many years ago. Now in his 60’s, Baffert has gone from the lowest racing circuits to the highest.
Just a few years ago Baffert suffered a near-fatal heart attack while in the UAE for the Dubai racing carnival. Some questioned whether or not he would ever train again. He made a full recovery and went on to achieve his greatest success, two Triple Crown victories.
Jockey Mike Smith Makes History
For many years, jockey Mike Smith has been one of the most sought-after jockeys in all of horse racing. Yet, despite the success achieved by Smith, something was missing. He had never had a chance to make a run at the Triple Crown. His first opportunity came with Justify, and it happened when Smith was 52 years old. At a time when most jockeys are winding down their career, Smith achieved the sport’s highest honor.
Known as a fierce rider, Mike Smith has been criticized for his poor timing in the past. Some believe that he cost Zenyatta a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic because he moved the horse too late from the rear of the pack. Those individuals must have thought the same thing when Smith asked Justify to move early in the Belmont.
This time, things worked out well. Smith has shown patient handling of Justify throughout all the races of the Triple Crown series. He was so overcome with emotion that he took Justify off by himself for a few moments in the immediate aftermath of the race.
What is next for Justify?
Most horses who win the Triple Crown are swiftly sent to retirement. This is especially true when the horse is a stud. To continue racing means that the horse could risk injury and sacrifice expensive breeding fees. Bob Baffert has stated that Justify will continue training throughout 2018, but he has not lined out a race schedule or even said if the horse will race at all.
It is likely that Justify will make an appearance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November if he stays healthy. American Pharoah won the Classic in 2015 to become racing’s first ever Grand Slam Champion. Baffert may want to give Justify the same opportunity. It is likely, though, that Baffert will skip the Travers Stakes. He tried that with American Pharoah and handed the horse it’s only defeat of the year.
The breeding rights to Justify have already been syndicated by the horse’s owners to Coolmore Stud for $75 million. The initial fee was $60 million, but the owners earned a $15 million dollar bonus when Justify claimed the Triple Crown. One would think that the goal is to get Justify into the breeding shed as soon as possible. He now stands to make much more money for his owners as a stud than he does at racing.
No matter what happens at stud, Justify has forever claimed a spot in horse racing history. Now, the world waits to see if Baffert can claim the Triple Crown for a third time.
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