Bettors who believed Justify was set to continue his unbeaten record and sent him off as the 4/5 favorite in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday June 9 were not only correct but they did not have a moment of anxiety.
Justify set the pace and kept on convincingly all the way to the wire under Mike Smith to become the 13th Triple Crown winner after his victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Justify provided his Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert with his second Triple Crown after American Pharoah’s exploits. For his veteran jockey, the 52-year-old Mike Smith, it was a first. He won in the red and yellow silks of the China Horse Club but is partly owned by WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners.
Justify beat Chad Brown’s recent recruit Gronkowski, a 25/1 long shot ridden by Jose Ortiz on his dirt debut, much more easily than the distance of a length and three quarters suggests. The second favorite, Bill Mott’s Hofburg (5/1) who was feared by Smith, took third beaten three and a half lengths. Hofburg was closely followed by Todd Pletcher’s Vino Rosso (15/2) who was expected to enjoy this distance of a mile and a half.
There were concerns about Justify’s stamina as a son of the speedy Scat Daddy racing over a mile and a half for the first time but his talent and temperament enabled him to succeed with ease. Having battled on a sloppy track in the Preakness and Kentucky Derby, the fast track conditions may have helped him to get home with imperious ease.
It was no coincidence that the two colts finishing closest to Justify were both held up. Justify’s talent is such that any horse who attempts to keep pace with him in the early stages of a race is likely to fall in a heap when it matters. Justify not only set the fastest ever first quarter mile in the Kentucky Derby but proved in the Belmont that he has the stamina to destroy rivals over a mile and a half when ridden with confidence.
Justify’s talent has blown the theories of the statisticians out of the water. He is just the second colt to take the Triple Crown without facing defeat. The only other to do so was Seattle Slew in the late 1970s. Winning the Triple Crown without racing as a juvenile is another huge achievement. The past five Triple Crown winners were all juvenile champions. Justify is extraordinary and has already earned his place in horse-racing history.
The barnmate bodyguard
When Justify broke quickly from gate one it was his barnmate, Restoring Hope (38/1) who was ridden forward from stall five by Florent Geroux to keep pace with him. Restoring Hope was soon positioned on his outside to take second place.
The race-caller was initially surprised to see a fellow Baffert trainee apparently challenging Justify for the lead but it soon became clear that the outsized Restoring Hope was acting as a bodyguard for Baffert’s key contender. Geroux kept his mount close to Justify, ensuring that no one else could hassle him for the lead or take up a position that was likely to trouble him. He raced half a length behind him at his shoulder occupying a space that others would have liked to fill.
Restoring Hope shadowed Justify as long as he could, keeping the prominently ridden Bravazo (8/1) behind him on the rail. Restoring Hope could not maintain the pace of his ultra-talented barnmate and dropped back half a mile from home. He had done his job and Bravazo dropped out of contention soon afterwards.
The weakening of the prominently ridden colts left Justify galloping alone, completely unchallenged. As he turned into the stretch his only threat looked to be from the fast finishing Gronkowski who seemed to have benefited from what appeared to be an extreme hold-up ride from Ortiz.
Ortiz admitted after the race that trailing the pack by some distance was not Plan A but, as Gronkowski broke very slowly from the gates, an attribute typical of any horse who has run most of his races in England, he had no choice. He trailed the pack from a considerable distance on the inside, wasting no ground. Plan B reaped rewards as the horses that tried to keep pace with Justify ran out of gas whilst Gronkowski kept galloping all the way to the wire without ever eye-balling the winner.
An exceptional temperament
Mike Smith said Justify stood so still in the stalls that he wondered if he would move when they opened. He need not have worried. Justify has mastered the art of relaxed but ready to go. His ability to cope with the hubbub of racing at the highest level is exceptional.
Baffert deserves praise for his patient approach and the colt’s admirable attitude but Justify was clearly born with a cool personality. The various teams responsible for his purchase as a yearling noted that, even at that age, a bomb could have gone off next to him and he would not have flinched. He also moved well and was very tall with good conformation attracting attention from other potential purchasers. Bred by John D. Gunther and raised and consigned by Glennwood Farm in Kentucky, this son of Scat Daddy out of Stage Magic, a Ghostzapper mare, realized $500,000 at Keenelands.
A great day for China Horse Club
The China Horse Club had already seen their red and yellow silks carried to victory earlier in the day. Abel Tasman, another Baffert trainee partnered by Smith and partly owned by Clearsky Farms, stormed home to win the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes for fillies and mares by over seven lengths.
The four-year-old filly started as the evens favorite but it must have been a relief to see her get the job done so easily. In her previous run in the La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 4 Smith got the tactics wrong leading to a disappointing result. The first three across the wire were ridden prominently. Abel Tasman was the 3/5 favorite with the legal USA sportsbooks but, held up out the back by Smith, she was beaten three lengths into fourth as she had far too much ground to make up.
What next for Justify?
The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Classic is the obvious target but, if for any reason Justify retires from the race track his stud fee is likely to add to his wealthy connections’ bank balances. Justify is beautifully bred with a temperament of inestimable value if he passes it on to his progeny.