As if becoming only the 13th Triple Crown winner in racing history is not exclusive enough, JUSTIFY's Belmont Stakes (G1) win on June 9 at Belmont Park inducted him into even more exclusive company.
In sweeping the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness Stakes (G1) and 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, Justify became just the second undefeated horse to do so and the only one not to have raced as a two-year-old. Indeed, he was the first unraced two-year-old since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby.
"The great ones find another gear," said Bob Baffert, who trains Justify for a partnership that includes WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. "At the sixteenth-pole I knew he was home, and I was just able to enjoy the race."
Baffert had come to Belmont four times with Derby-Preakness winners. Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem all lost before American Pharoah was "finally the one" in 2015. Baffert said going into this year's Triple Crown try that he wanted to enjoy this pursuit more than previous tries.
The trainer joins exclusive company, too. He already was one of only 11 trainers to saddle a Triple Crown winner, and now he's one of only two to saddle two, joining "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons (trainer of Gallant Fox and Omaha). This is also Baffert's third Belmont Stakes victory and 15th all-time in a Triple Crown race, putting him ahead of D. Wayne Lukas in that category. Baffert has five Derbys and seven Preaknesses.
"When I won the Derby for the fifth time that was a special moment for me," Baffert said. "I thought, 'Wow this is cool I won the Derby five times,' but for the Triple Crown I wanted that for this horse. He deserves for his name to be up there with the greats, and when you win the Triple Crown you're great."
Justify's racing career began February 18, and in the nearly four months since, he has provided few anxious moments for his connections – winning all six starts by a combined 23 3/4 lengths as the favorite each time. In fact, the only eager moments in the Scat Daddy colt's career likely came before he even started racing, as he did not begin serious training until fall of his two-year-old season.
"As far as this horse goes, we were behind the eight-ball, but thought he had the talent to focus on the (Triple Crown_ races," WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden said. "He started his training late, but we thought sending him to California with its consistent weather would give us a chance – especially with such a great trainer, maybe the greatest trainer."
There were no eager moments in the Belmont Stakes, as jockey Mike Smith had a good hold of Justify from the rail post position and cruised through fractions of :23.37, :48.11, 1:13.21, 1:38.09 and 2:02.90 before completing the 1 1/2 miles over the fast track in 2:28.18.
"This horse gets in a rhythm, then he can take a breather, then he keeps going," Smith said.
"I asked Bob what he told Mike as they were leaving the paddock, and he said, 'I told him the gas tank is full; don't empty it all at once.'"
Smith never really had to put his foot on the gas until the stretch run, as no horse got within a length of him for any sustained period of time. Stablemate Restoring Hope tracked him early before backing through the field, and Gronkowski – the European Road to the Kentucky Derby points leader – closed up the rail in his U.S. and dirt debut to be second at 24-1.
"I'm really proud of my horse," trainer Chad Brown said. "He had a lot of things against him –first time dirt, first time 1 1/2 miles, and a layoff.
"My thought turning for home was that we had a shot to get Justify if he was vulnerable at a mile and a half, but we just couldn't get to that horse. The pace might have been a little slow, but Justify ran in all three races and won the Triple Crown. He showed up and earned it."
Following Gronkowski under the Belmont wire were Hofburg, Vino Rosso, Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
Justify will return to Baffert's Churchill Downs string in Louisville, Kentucky.