Belmont Stakes

Triple Crown Skinny: Justify’s Historic Run Makes Belmont Stakes Day Special

Justify draped in his Triple Crown blanket (Photo: Michael Spector)

It’s taken some time for the feat that Justify just accomplished to fully settle in.

This was much different than witnessing American Pharoah win the first Triple Crown of my lifetime in person. Back then, I was in an immediate state of euphoria following the race. After going to Belmont Park in person for five failed attempts and remembering every Triple Crown attempt since the late 1980s, it didn’t take much for me to explode with emotion after witnessing American Pharoah’s triumph.

I stood about 75 feet past the finish line as Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday. I was indeed happy, but also confounded about what I had just witnessed. It wasn’t the euphoric feeling that I’d had three years earlier.

I’m sure a lot of horse racing fans felt this way. As I’ve had a chance to reflect, even though I may never again feel the same way that I did after American Pharaoh won, the historic significance of what I witnessed has made Justify’s moment very special in its own unique way.

What Justify did by winning six straight races in 111 days, including the three Triple Crown races, is head-spinning.

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Maybe it’s happened so fast that we can’t even grasp it yet. Maybe it’s been the flurry of great performances by Bob Baffert trainees, including American Pharoah and Arrogate, that have made these feats commonplace. Maybe we’re spoiled and just expect to see greatness emerge on the scene in short time periods under Baffert’s tutelage.

As the minutes and hours pass, Justify’s greatness (and yes, we can already label him as “great”) continues to become clearer. Simply, he’s the second undefeated Triple Crown winner ever, joining the great Seattle Slew in that illustrious duo. That should be enough, but on top of that, he broke the “Curse of Apollo,” becoming the first unraced juvenile to win the Kentucky Derby since 1882, and he is the only horse to ever win the Triple Crown without racing during his 2-year-old season.

Yes, we waited 37 years for Pharoah, and he was indeed “the one” to break that drought. How could that be outdone?

Well, now, Justify has done things that no one has ever seen in the history of horse racing, much more beyond just a 37-year drought. Even though I knew all of Justify’s stats while standing there and watching him win the Test of the Champion, its historic significance didn’t put me in a state of euphoria, but more a state of reflective gratefulness of what I was witnessing.

If this was a normal Triple Crown where we would’ve followed a horse during his juvenile campaign and then watched him get hot at the right time, I’m not sure that this moment would have been as special. The way in which Justify announced himself on the scene and quickly denounced all theories and curses before him was a spectacle to appreciate.

That appreciation extends to being able to capture moments in a couple of my favorite photos that I took on Saturday:

The definition of focus: jockey Mike Smith keeps Justify calm as they emerge from the Belmont tunnel to the roar of the 90,327 people in attendance (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

Justify paraded around following the historic 150th Belmont Stakes as the crowd applauded and cheered throughout the coronation (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

Owner Teo Ah Khing of the China Horse Club gives a thumbs-up while escorting Justify to the winner’s circle (Photo: Michael Spector)

To check out the live feed that I recorded of the Belmont Stakes post-race press conference, click on my Twitter link here:

As we try to put this Triple Crown in perspective, we will have to wait to see how this story concludes. As co-owner WinStar Farm’s CEO Elliott Walden said during the post-race press conference, there will be a summer campaign for Justify.

One of the craziest moments that I’ve ever experienced in racing was when American Pharoah lost to Keen Ice in the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Baffert was redeemed one year later when he shipped in Arrogate, and all he did was run the fastest Travers in the history of the 148-year-old race.

Still, Arrogate was not American Pharoah, and Baffert must have an itch to prove that he can take down the Travers with a Triple Crown winner. The anticipation will build as the temperatures start to rise in upstate New York and the Saratoga meet approaches. Baffert told Albany Times Union reporter Tim Wilkin after the Belmont, “Everyone thinks I am opposed to coming to Saratoga. I am not. I have had good luck there.” Walden also told Wilkin, “Saratoga would definitely be a strong consideration. We love to run there.”

Saratogians campaigned using #PharoahToga to coax Baffert and American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat to run at the historic track three years ago. Now, the only question is: are you ready for #Justifatoga?

Abel & Willing

The day’s racing at Belmont Park was full of stars and just a spectacle of big performances stacked on top of each other. Let’s shine a light on some of these stars through some of my top photos that help tell the stories.

Baffert and Smith got the day off to a big start when they won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes with the 2017 3-Year-Old Filly champion Abel Tasman. After debuting 2018 with a dull fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks Day undercard five weeks ago, many speculated that Abel Tasman had lost a step.

Those notions were quickly squashed when Abel Tasman made one of her patented rush-up early moves under Smith and never looked back, drawing off to win by a romping 7 1/2 lengths. It’s amazing that she excels making these early moves, but maybe that’s how she does her best running, as she won last summer’s Grade 1 Coaching Club America Oaks using similar tactics.

Here’s a gif of my shots of Abel Tasman way in front of her foes after the wire:

 

Owner Teo Ah Khing of the China Horse Club is all smiles while escorting his filly champ Abel Tasman to the winner’s circle (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

Abel Tasman giving major “side-eye” during her post-race hose down (Photo: Michael Spector)

Abel Tasman’s versatility is a weapon, and Baffert talks below about how the the Breeders’ Cup Distaff will be her main target. With the Ogden Phipps as a “Win & You’re In” qualifier, she has already earned her spot in the gate for a race where she was the runner-up in 2017. In this interview, Baffert says, “I doubt if she’ll run in California,” and he somewhat dismisses the notion of taking her to the Grade 1 Delaware Handicap. We can speculate that she may target a return to Saratoga in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes on Travers Day, August 25:

Girl Power

It’s a rare opportunity to see back-to-back Kentucky Oaks winners win Grade 1 stakes in consecutive races on a card. The 2017 Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman was followed a half-hour later when the 2018 Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl took the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes with an equally-dominant performance.

This filly is just so good right now and in top form. The rest of the crop will need to really step up their game in order to take her down. Talk Veuve to Me actually ran a very gallant race, setting a swift pace and holding on to only lose by 2 lengths, so maybe she’s competitive going forward.

Trainer Brad Cox has now won three straight Grade 1s with Monomoy Girl and has his eye on taking her to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Coaching Club America Oaks on opening weekend to try to extend that streak, per a NYRA press release. Cox said,”That’ll be our short-term goal. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s good timing between races, and hopefully we’ll have her ready and she’ll reward us again.”

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim because I’ll be providing on-site updates as Monomoy Girl progresses towards her first date at Saratoga.

Jockey Florent Geroux getting ready on Monomoy Girl in the paddock (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

Monomoy Girl a bit after the wire over a tough Talk Veuve to Me in the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

The connections of Monomoy Girl celebrate bringing her into the winner’s circle, including Monomoy Stables (Sol Kumin), Michael Dubb, The Elkstone Group, and Bethlehem Stables (Photo: Michael Spector)

Disco Fever

Two races later, Disco Partner showed in the Grade 2 Jaipur Invitational Stakes that he is almost unstoppable going 6 furlongs on the Belmont Park turf once he gets in the clear. Defending his Jaipur title from 2017 when he set a world record time for this distance on grass, jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. steered the New York-bred Disco Partner to the outside for the stretch run and it was done, as he won by 1 length over Conquest Tsunami. His devastating turn of foot for trainer Christophe Clement is something to behold; he’s able to pass horses like they’re stuck in mud.

Per a NYRA press release, Clement’s plan is to target the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Clement said, “Now you have to work backwards a little bit. Do you try to run them in the Breeders’ Cup, and if so, how do you get there? The Belmont Turf Sprint (Championship) could be the (Breeders’ Cup) prep. I’m sure we’ll run once or twice in between then. It’s fun to win these kind of races and get to plan for the future.”

Clement added that Disco Partner may look to defend his title in the one-mile Forbidden Apple Stakes on July 14 at Belmont, but it is unlikely that he’ll run in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga, like he tried in 2017.

The handsome grey Disco Partner makes his way to the track under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. (Photo: Michael Spector)

Just A Beauty

Death, taxes, and Chad Brown fillies dominating on the turf are a few certainties in life. A Raving Beauty may be the next star for the Brown barn to keep all well in the world that we know.

After crushing the Grade 3 Beaugay Stakes at Belmont last month in her United States debut, A Raving Beauty showed that her performance was no fluke. Setting up shop behind Lull‘s early pace, jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. had A Raving Beauty ready to unleash. As they came into the stretch, A Raving Beauty was primed and took over, showing a swift turn-of-foot to win by 3/4 of a length over multiple graded stakes winner Proctor’s Ledge.

With 18 starts in her career, the 5-year-old mare may have a date in Saratoga next on her calendar. Per a NYRA press release, Brown may target the Grade 1 Diana Stakes on Opening Day, Saturday, July 21, and said, “It’s a strong possibility to get her out to a mile and 1/8, and the timing (for the Diana) probably works fine. We already have won a Grade 1 with her, and we’re going to find another race that fits her.”

The Just A Game was quite a field of the best turf fillies in the country, and if you want to see these beautiful horses, check out this video I took of the field leaving the paddock:

Irad Ortiz, Jr. is thankful after his win on A Raving Beauty in the Just A Game (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

A Raving Beauty grinning during her post-race hose down (Photo: Michael Spector)

Bee Easy

Yes, we saw a Triple Crown on Saturday, but the race of the day was the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile). After setting a hot pace under Ricardo Santana, Jr., Bee Jersey kicked clear of the field in the stretch with only one foe rallying towards him late, the two-time Dubai Golden Shaheen winner and New York-bred Horse of the Year Mind Your Biscuits. The Chad Summer-trained Mind Your Biscuits was putting in another one of his patented late moves in the stretch, while the up-and-coming Steve Asmussen charge Bee Jersey was putting his heart on the line to hold off the late surge. Bee Jersey got his nose down on the wire first in one of the day’s most thrilling moments.

A rivalry may have been born in the Met Mile stretch, but now the main question is if they will meet again. After the race, Asmussen said that he’ll look at the 7-furlong Grade 1 Forego Stakes at Saratoga on Travers Day as a possible future race for Bee Jersey, per a NYRA press release.

Taking a possibly divergent path going forward, per a NYRA press release, Summers said of Mind Your Biscuits, “I think in the immediate here and now, you nominate to the Belmont Sprint Championship (Grade 2 on July 7 at Belmont) because it’s logically the next one up, but also to look at stretching him out, possibly going in to the Whitney (Grade 1 on August 4 at Saratoga) or the Woodward (Grade 1 on September 1), but that all depends.”

Maybe they’ll meet back up in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, but if they don’t meet again, then we’ll always have this awesome confrontation to look back at.

Joel Rosario looks poised and ready for a big run on Mind Your Biscuits leaving the paddock (Photo: Michael Spector)

 

Both Ricardo Santana, Jr. and Bee Jersey close their eyes in appreciation of winning the historic Met Mile (Photo: Michael Spector)

So that’s a wrap! What a day, and we have memories to last a lifetime. Since we’re getting a bit long in the tooth here, I’ll give a quick shoutout to Prince Lucky and his longshot 14/1 win in the Easy Goer to start the Stakes action on Saturday. The venerable veteran Hoppertunity continued to accumulate cash in his steady career by winning the Grade 2 Brooklyn, bringing his earnings to a whopping $4.6 million. More upset action happened when Still Having Fun won the Grade 2 Woody Stephens at 13/1 odds and now looks like a top 3-year-old sprinter that’ll be dangerous going forward. Last but not least, the biggest upset of the day was Spring Quality at 18/1 odds charging late on the outside to take the Grade 1 Manhattan over a tough-luck Sadler’s Joy.

We’re now lined up for a big summer at Saratoga and I have already started getting myself ready for another fun year of coverage up here at The Spa, so please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim as we turn the page to summer racing.

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