August 21, 2018

Triple Crown winner Justify proves one of a kind

Justify and his connections celebrate in the Belmont Park winner's circle after the colt takes the 150th Belmont Stakes (G1) to sweep the Triple Crown on Saturday, June 9, 2018 (c) Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com

Justify capped a remarkable Triple Crown run in the Belmont Stakes. He accomplished so much in a short period and became only the 13th horse to sweep the elusive series.

Big, fast and supremely talented, the late-starting Justify also displayed amazing fortitude. Being the best horse wasn’t good enough for Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Point Given, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, California Chrome and others who came up one leg short of a Triple Crown sweep. Justify not only had the skills, he brought a level of professionalism to the equation that belied his inexperience.

The chestnut never got rattled, never lost his composure. Bob Baffert was able to plot a demanding schedule and squeeze six starts inside a four-month window, and Justify never looked any worse for the wear despite averaging only 22 days between appearances. It was an incredible feat in this era of lightly-raced horses and wouldn’t have been possible without his Hall of Fame conditioner.

“Keep him happy” was a familiar refrain from the Baffert barn and the 65-year-old trainer makes it look easy despite enormous pressure. He’s the best in the business when it comes to the Triple Crown and it’s not close. Baffert won his second Triple Crown in four years and passed D. Wayne Lukas to become the all-time leader with 15 Triple Crown race wins. It’s easy to underappreciate the advantage his horsemanship provided Justify.

Campaigned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Racing Club et al, Justify dominated the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes gate to wire and registered an excellent 109 BRIS Speed rating for the 1 ¾-length decision.

Hangover/Late Arrival Effect

Justify joined Seattle Slew (1977) as the only unbeaten dynamo to wear the crown. And similar to Seattle Slew, who came along four years after Secretariat snapped a 25-year-old Triple Crown drought in the 1973, there was a hangover effect with Justify, who starred only three years after American Pharoah erased a 37-year-old stretch of Triple Crown futility.

And being an unraced 2-year-old, the first in 136 years to capture the Kentucky Derby, Justify came out of nowhere to take Thoroughbred racing by storm. Previous Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah were all major race winners at age 2 who had a following entering their sophomore season, but Justify didn’t begin to generate a serious buzz for the Kentucky Derby until impressively winning his second start, a March 11 entry-level allowance at Santa Anita.

His popularity grew quickly as he won over fans, but Justify wasn’t able to develop the same bond people held for an American Pharoah, a much-beloved Kentucky Derby hopeful who was named champion 2-year-old after recording multiple Grade 1 wins.

Jockey Tactics

Florent Geroux did his best to take the spotlight away from Justify with an inept ride aboard Restoring Hope in the Belmont Stakes. His mount missed the break and when the riders of Bravazo and Noble Indy took a hold at the start, there was no reason to be weaving all over the track. Restoring Hope didn’t interfere with any rivals, so his actions had no impact upon the outcome, but the lack of awareness by Geroux was baffling.

I wasn’t surprised by the ride aboard Noble Indy, who didn’t show the early speed co-owner Mike Repole (who also had Vino Rosso in the field) expected. If Repole wanted to dictate tactics, he should have insisted upon a different rider than Javier Castellano. Paco Lopez was available. Dylan Davis knows Belmont Park and probably would’ve followed instructions with hopes of riding Repole-owned horses in the future.

WinStar co-owns Noble Indy and that put Castellano, who is still trying to win his first Kentucky Derby, in an impossible spot. WinStar won their second Kentucky Derby with Justify and moved into third all-time by number of starters this year. They will continue to be a prominent factor in the build-up to the Kentucky Derby and Castellano will be riding their horses. Repole can’t be blindsided by the business side of the equation.

Luis Saez’s passive ride aboard Bravazo, who had no direct connection to WinStar or Baffert, was a bit surprising. I don’t think it would have made a difference in the end, but I can imagine former stalwarts of the New York jockey colony like Angel Cordero or Jerry Bailey shaking their heads at his tactics. They would’ve tried to make Justify earn it.

With Justify at the rail, Saez was in position (post 3) to try and put the odds-on favorite in the same spot as Good Magic in the Preakness (with a rival pressuring to his outside) aboard Bravazo, who posted a front-running victory earlier this year in the Risen Star (G2), a race like the Belmont Stakes that featured a moderate pace. Perhaps he was under instructions to take back and it’s a moot point, but Saez made no effort to apply pressure during the opening stages.

Justify still had to do it, but he was loose on the lead from the start with Mike Smith.

Future implications

Winning the Triple Crown is the ultimate accomplishment in U.S. horse racing and the journey isn’t over yet for Justify. Connections delivered a real boon to the sport by announcing plans to point the exciting colt toward a late summer/fall campaign.

The November 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs will be the ultimate target and Baffert could utilize a pair of preps – July 29 Haskell (G1) and September 22 Pennsylvania Derby (G1) are options – or a single race like the August 18 Pacific Classic (G1) to get there.

My colleague Vance Hanson wrote a column earlier this week speculating upon where Justify’s Triple Crown ranks among U.S. racing achievements and while it clearly belongs somewhere in the top 10 presently, I’m hesitant to deliver a grade presently considering the unprecedented opportunity at hand.

Justify will enhance a great season by winning out.

None of the Triple Crown winners in the last 65 years could do it. Seattle Slew dropped his next start after the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah lost the Travers (G1) before delivering a magnificent career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Being undefeated holds special value and no horse in training can beat Justify if he shows up with his “A” game. If he defeats older horses and retires unblemished after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Justify will put an exclamation point upon an incredible legacy unlikely to be duplicated in our lifetime.

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