Unlike the 12 previous Triple Crown winners, who built upon the solid foundation of a campaign as two-year-olds, Justify did not race at two. The three-year-old progressed from a career debut as late as February 18 into an unbeaten Triple Crown champion within a four-month span – a feat that would have been thought unattainable.
After all, no Derby winner had been unraced as a juvenile since Apollo in 1882, and Justify had to break that “Apollo curse” at Churchill Downs. Furthermore, no horse had ever turned the Derby/Preakness double after going unraced at two, never mind win a Triple Crown.
That’s because racing as a two-year-old helps the youngster develop mentally as well as physically. While more races logically offer more experience, the time frame is also important. Babies who learn how to run competitively absorb those lessons over time.
Think of it in terms of human education: a student typically spends four years to complete high school, and the same (or longer) to earn a college degree. To use that rough analogy, Justify crammed in an incredible load of credit hours to earn his diploma summa cum laude in record time, like the child genius who graduates college at 16 with a perfect grade point average.
So how did Justify pull it off? Although his talents can be described in various ways, I see it as a rare combination of three aptitudes that propelled him to the Triple Crown.
We might call it his “triple crown” of virtues.
1. The physical ability to carry a high cruising speed over a classic distance. Many horses are fast, but can’t sustain their speed going a route of ground, let alone at distances upwards of 1 3/16 miles. Justify has the powerful engine to go forward early plus the stamina to keep motoring. As a result, he is the master of his own destiny, maker of his own luck. He is not at the mercy of what his rivals may do, not a hostage to pace scenarios as closers are, not as liable to experience costly trouble in the pack. Justify could just go out and run his race, regardless. That had to instill confidence in Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who knew what he had underneath him at every stage and acted accordingly.
2. The mental strength to handle every situation under pressure. Some flashy debut winners go on to successful careers, but others fail to progress as the competition increases. Justify is the poster boy for the phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” If his maiden and allowance scores were cakewalks, he was thrown into the gladiatorial arena in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). He met his first top-class opponent in Bolt d’Oro, who tried mightily to challenge him. Instead of reacting adversely or crumbling as inexperienced runners can do, Justify raised his game in response and rebuffed him. Each race of the Triple Crown posed its own stiff tests – a raucous atmosphere that can unnerve even well-behaved animals, sloppy tracks and pace duels in the first two jewels, the demanding distance of the Belmont that exposes any failure to relax – and Justify met them all with unflappable stoicism.
3. The hardy constitution to thrive throughout the Triple Crown grind. If a horse has the physical talent and mental strength, he still has to avoid the pitfalls that bedevil elite athletes in all sports – injury, illness, or just the wear and tear of an intense schedule. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is often weak. Justify had more right than most to feel the effects of the Triple Crown grind, considering that he had to play catch-up to his more experienced contemporaries. And his bruised heel coming out of the Derby could have become an issue for a more fragile animal. Yet he healed fast, never missed a beat, and remained a hulking chestnut beast throughout, losing neither weight nor enthusiasm. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert deserves praise for sculpting him to perfection, but Justify was the Carrara marble.
All three qualities can be regarded as virtues, in the ancient sense of the term connoting “excellence.” These three dimensions of excellence, found in the great champions, made it possible for Justify to overcome a lack of juvenile foundation and achieve the ultimate prize in American racing.
Justify head shot by Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com
Belmont Stakes finish by Photos by Z
Belmont Park's infield honoring Triple Crown champions by NYRA/Coglianese/Zoe Metz