ELMONT, NY – In winning the Kentucky Derby, Justify etched his name alongside 143 other celebrated champions.
By repeating that result in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, that company line was cut to 24.
On Saturday, June 9, 2018, Justify achieved immortality by becoming just the 13th horse in history to win the Triple Crown after capturing the 150th running of the Grade 1, $1,500,000 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park.
Breaking from the rail with the speed of a quarter horse, the 4-5 favorite quickly established command under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and was left to his own devices on the front end as he entered the first turn. Much like he did in the Kentucky Derby, Justify’s opening 1/4-mile was a blistering :23.37, but by the time he was nearing the far turn, he had relaxed and almost appeared to be jogging while yet to receive any pressure. His following fractions indicated as much – he completed a 1/2-mile in :48.11 and 3/4 of a mile in 1:13.21, a difference of about :25 between each one.
As Justify approached the final turn, the sound from the sold-out crowd of over 90,000 fans rose from a low murmur to an audible roar and grew with every step that he took. Vino Rosso, one of the few perceived threats to Justify’s quest for glory, commenced his move through the far turn, and for a moment, the tension could have been cut with a razor. All fears were vanquished, though, when Vino momentarily caught Justify’s eye. Seeing a foe dare approach him sparked Justify’s fuel, and the ensuing inferno was more than sufficient to scorch a trail in Big Sandy. Under Smith’s confident handling, Justify repelled Vino Rosso and drove the length of the stretch, with nary a colt strong enough to catch him. Surrounded by a fever pitch of fandom, Justify crossed the wire in a final time of 2:28.18, forever stamping himself among the greatest to ever compete.
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” said Smith. “He’s so gifted. He’s sent from heaven. He’s just amazing. Did you see him standing in the gate? He’s standing so still … I actually thought, ‘He’s not going to break today.’ I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the horse crossing in second. Though he was dismissed by experts (who all hoped that his namesake would draw overt amounts of uninformed public money) and bettors (who seemed to mostly listen to the experts and allowed him to break from post 6 at odds of 24-1), Gronkowski might have gotten the last laugh on his detractors. After he seemingly missed the start once the gates popped open, jockey Jose Ortiz allowed Gronkowski to angle inward and save ground along the rail at the rear of the field. Nearing the far turn, the Chad Brown trainee had caught the rest of the field, and perhaps as a gift to make up for his poor start, the Horse Racing Gods blessed Gronkowski with an opening along the rail. With a sudden surge, Gronkowski began gobbling up tiring horses, and by the time the field straightened for home, he had emerged only a few lengths off of the winner. While he may not have had enough to catch Justify, the shipper from Great Britain was much the best of the rest, far outrunning his odds to take second by 1 3/4 lengths.
“He broke a bit slow,” Ortiz said. “He’s a horse from England. After that, I didn’t have any choice. I had to drop in and save all the ground. He handled the dirt. I worked him twice and he handled it, so I was optimistic. We got a good trip, it worked out well. He broke a bit slow. I wish he would have broke a little bit better.”
Considered by many to be the “wise-guy horse” that offered the best chance at pulling the upset, Hofburg initially ran the race that his Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott had hoped. Running at the end of the main pack heading into the first turn, Hofburg settled kindly and rated down the backside, but appeared to be waiting behind a wall of horses heading into the far turn. Finally finding room through which to squeeze midway through, Hofburg had to shift outward or else risk losing his momentum, but the result was a five-wide run that might have taken too much out of him. Coming under a full drive before he even straightened for home, Hofburg had to grind every step of the way just to outlast a weakening Vino Rosso for third by a neck.
“There was no pace and nobody put any pressure on (Justify) and he kind of walked the dog going around there,” Mott said. “They were going slow and (jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.) said he didn’t want to make some crazy move down the backside to go join him, which probably wouldn’t have made any sense. Our horse came running. He ran well. I mean, for not having any pace, he finished up very well.”
Over 3 lengths back, Tenfold, who along with Justify was the only other horse in the field that went unraced a 2-year-old, took fifth over Bravazo, who along with Justify was the only other horse to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown. Free Drop Billy never fired after trailing all but Gronkowski for most of the race and crossed seventh, while Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen, and Noble Indy appeared to only cross the finish line shortly before the next race went off.
Justify returned $3.60 to win, $3.50 to place, and $2.80 to show. Gronkowski brought back $13.80 to place and $7 to show, while Hofburg paid $3.70 to show.
With the victory, Justify increased his career bankroll to an eye-popping $3,798,000 for an ownership group consisting of China Horse Club International, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners. His Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, joined the late James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only other trainer to win two Triple Crowns. Baffert’s first came in 2015 with American Pharoah, while Fitzsimmons won it in 1930 with Gallant Fox and in 1935 with Omaha.
“It’s amazing,” Baffert said. “It never gets old. (Justify) was showing me the same signs (as American Pharoah), he showed me that same brilliance. Superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He’s just that kind of horse.”
Many are aware that Justify was the first horse since Apollo in 1882 that went unraced as a 2-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby. On Saturday, he joined Seattle Slew (1977) as the only other Triple Crown winner with an undefeated record. The list of this tremendous colt’s accomplishments and historical markers is seemingly endless. What’s particularly astounding is that Justify won his debut race on February 18, and in the span of less than four months, he now sports a record of 6 wins from 6 starts. It’s rare to find a horse in this day and age that makes 6 starts in four months, period, let alone win them all.
But to do it against the best of the best 3-year-olds from both North America and abroad?
Now, THAT is the sign of an immortal.
“Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.”
– Edgar Lee Masters