Unlike the rest of the Racing Dudes team, who have followed horse racing for well over 100 years combined, I wasn’t paying much attention when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown three years ago. Sure, I knew enough to know that it was a big deal, and he was about the only winning bet that I made at the Breeders’ Cup that year, but I’ll admit it – I get a little jealous whenever they talk about their experiences following Pharoah. I missed out on it.
When I first heard the rumors in February that Justify could be as good as Pharoah, I had a hard time believing it. Horsemen are prone to overstating a horse’s quality, and I’m still learning how to read between the lines. It wasn’t until the Dudes and I were lucky enough to have dinner with the legendary Jon White, and I heard Jon’s own reverence, that I began buying the Justify hype. Days after, I still felt some reservations, but then came the Santa Anita Derby, where I was able to see Justify with my own eyes.
The moment he stepped out of the saddling area and into the walking ring, I was amazed. His size, his stature, his composure. There must have been 50 of us inside the ring, not to mention hundreds more tightly packed around the outside, and every single person had a camera aimed at his face. How did such a lightly-raced stud handle the intensity? Much like the Hall of Fame jockey riding him, he looked he’d been doing it for years. It’s one thing, having watched and covered sports for most of my life, to see the steely look of intense focus in an athlete’s eye, but there’s something different, something almost unnerving, when it’s coming from an 1,110-pound behemoth on four legs.
As soon as Justify cleared the paddock and began parading around the track, I ran to the nearest window and bet big on him to win. Most of you wouldn’t know this, but I almost never bet horses to win; I’m a stubborn show bettor (though I promise I’m trying to reform). For me to bet a horse to win at all – let alone what was (for me) a sizeable amount – is a big deal. We know what happened next; Justify barely looked like he was trying while romping wire to wire. Shortly after the race ended, we recorded a special Blinkers Off podcast, and for several minutes, I gushed about how great Justify had looked. That day was the defining moment for me; I was officially sold.
Much has been written about his next three performances, so there’s no need for me to dwell on them here. Instead, let’s talk about June 23, 2018, an occasion that the city of Arcadia declared “Justify Day.”
Santa Anita did a wonderful job promoting it. Despite the hazy overcast weather, the track grounds were brightly adorned with admiration and celebration. Along with parading Justify between the fourth and fifth races, the track gave away commemorative posters to the first 4,000 through the turnstiles, and Mike Smith himself was set to sign them from 10:30-11:30. Even the famous Seabiscuit statue that anchors the walking ring garden was part of the party.
I arrived to the track at 9:45, 15 minutes before the gates were scheduled to open, expecting to see a small crowd waiting to get inside. What I soon realized was that so many people had arrived early, the track let them in ahead of time in order to start lining up. I found a spot at the end of the line, much farther back than I had anticipated (and carrying two big laptops, because only rookies bring just one to the press box). Soon after, staff began handing out raffle tickets, which is when I discovered that I was the 2,020th person in line.
Mike Smith arrived right on time and was greeted with a roar from the energetic gallery. As the line began to move and I slowly snaked my way around the gardens and toward the signing area, I lost count of how many times I saw Justify hats, t-shirts, and even football jerseys emblazoned with a giant 13 on the front and “Team Baffert” as the nameplate on the back. It was shortly after 11:00 when I finally reached Smith’s table. To his left was a stack of unsigned posters that, had it been any higher, might have been too tall to be a professional jockey. Yet Smith was unfazed. He had an efficient system in place: sign, pass; sign, pass. Though as busy and as focused as he appeared, he never once hesitated when asked to pause for a photo. Always a fan favorite, Smith didn’t leave until he had signed every single poster, staying long after his scheduled out-time of 11:30.
Satisfied with my prized new artwork that later required negotiation for the right to display at home, I headed to the press box and settled into my usual spot, waiting (at times impatiently) for the fourth race’s entrants to begin their post parade. Once they did, I joined the rest of the media contingency in the saddling area, which had its own celebratory signage above the entrance to the jockeys’ room. Shortly before Justify was led over from the barn, Smith popped his head out to say hello.
More minutes passed, then suddenly, the crowds along the rail suddenly increased tenfold, and I knew what it meant: the champ was near.
Seeing a physical specimen as beautiful and grandiose as a race horse less than a foot in front of you is breathtaking. There’s nothing that I can compare it to from my own life experiences. Knowing that you’re that close to greatness? It’s indescribable. And the best part? He knows it.
Justify is famous for his disdain of humans. To him, we are just those things that buzz around feeding him, bathing him, and showering him with attention.
He is the king and we are his peasants.
If he could speak, he would have bellowed, “Render unto Justify that which is Justify’s!”
The crowd’s rapt attention on Justify allowed Smith and trainer Bob Baffert the rare opportunity to mingle openly in public without much bother. The two seemed relaxed, happy to be done with the vigorous Triple Crown season, and ready to bask in the celebration, not caring one bit that almost all attention was focused elsewhere.
After graciously circling the saddling area for several minutes, Justify was led into the walking ring and the clouds opened, the sun shining down on the day’s star. Several hundred more met him with glee and camera phones, and thankfully, nobody was yelling out “JUSTIFY, WE LOVE YOU! GIVE US A SMILE!” this time (which some crazed man did before the Santa Anita Derby). You do not speak to the King unless spoken to.
Having completed three long, slow laps around the paddock, a cavalcade of security guards then escorted Justify through the tunnel under the grandstands and onto the track apron, at which point track announcer Michael Wrona declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the 13th Triple Crown winner: JUSTIFY!”
The crowd of 17,403 erupted in unison while the champ was paraded to the clubhouse turn before pulling a 180 and walking back to the winner’s circle, where he held court amongst Baffert, Smith, and dozens of photographers elbowing each other out of the way. No more than a minute later, satisfied that he had fulfilled his obligation to his loyal subjects, Justify walked along the outer rail for the length of the stretch, allowing everyone in attendance the privilege of seeing him up close before returning to his barn. Meanwhile, in the much-emptier winner’s circle, Baffert and Smith continued posing for photos and even allowed a small-time reporter the chance to speak with them.
The thing that had been on my mind for hours was how gracious Smith had been to everyone wanting his John Hancock, refusing to leave until he had signed every poster thrust in front of him. I had to ask him about it.
“I didn’t want to leave anybody out,” he told me. “I was shocked (when I saw how many people were waiting for me). We had the time and I never want to leave anybody out. So many times, we have to, and it breaks my heart to see that, especially when people have been waiting long enough and their kids are out there. I wanted to see if I could get it done, and we got it done.”
As has been the case since Justify made history at Belmont Park, Baffert refused to name Justify’s next start. Many present tried pushing and prying, but the Hall of Fame trainer stood his ground.
“We won’t know that until I put a breeze into him,” he said. “I talked to Elliot (Walden, CEO of co-owner WinStar Farm) yesterday, and he said to keep him in touch when we go back. We want to give him a few days off, just let him settle and enjoy.”
Nobody knows where Justify will run next – but wherever he lands, and however he finishes, you can bet it will be memorable.