Only the 2018 Belmont Stakes stands in the way of Justify joining the most elite group in thoroughbred racing, the Triple Crown winners. The Bob Baffert trainee has gotten to this point by running all of his races in just under four months, something that no other horse has ever done.
Feb. 18, race 2, Santa Anita, 7F Maiden Special Weight
Before Justify had even started in his first race there was word that Baffert had a special three-year-old in his barn. By now, we have heard the stories that Baffert kept hanging around the racing office at Santa Anita to make sure that this maiden race filled. He even told the Racing Secretary that his horse was good enough to win the Kentucky Derby. At the end of an interview, he said to a turf writer that he was going to take him to meet the Derby winner. This race is not on YouTube, but here is a link to watch Justify break his maiden by more than nine lengths in a dazzling 1:21.86 that earned a BSF of 104. At this point, all racing fans were introduced to Justify.
March 11, race 5, Santa Anita, 1 mile, Allowance
It was time for Baffert to get serious with his new star and so he made the jockey switch from Drayden Van Dyke to “Big Money” Mike Smith. The track came up muddy and at the time nobody knew that wet tracks would become Justify’s most common racing surface. He broke a step slowly in a field of five and had to rally from a couple lengths behind. In the end, it was another victory by open lengths and another big BSF, this time a 101.
April 7, race 9, Santa Anita, 1 1/8 miles, Santa Anita Derby (G1)
Baffert sent Justify into the Grade 1 race to get the requisite qualifying points for the first Saturday in May. There he would face a strong field with stakes quality horses like the highly regarded Bolt d’Oro. The results were never in doubt as Justify easily turned back the challenge of Bolt d’Oro. The final time for the nine furlongs was good and earned a big BSF of 107.
May 5, race 12, Churchill Downs, 1 ¼ miles, Kentucky Derby (G1)
Justify’s first start away from his home base at Santa Anita came in America’s biggest race. The one thing that you could say for sure was that the 2.90-1 favorite had experience on a wet track. As you watch the replay, it is amazing how after he broke sharply from the gate that there was no horse near him on either side. He had perfect position the entire race and won by 2 ½-lengths, earning another triple digit BSF of 103. An important quality of the best horses is that they find a way of having good trips, even in the 20-horse Derby field.
May 19, race 13, Pimlico, 1 3/16 miles, Preakness Stakes (G1)
The Preakness brought torrential races, a sloppy track, thick fog, and a small field of eight. Justify faced the toughest race of his career in Baltimore. He had to battle head-to-head with the Derby runner-up Good Magic for almost a mile. That does not allow a horse a chance to relax regardless of the fractional times. For the first time Smith had to use the whip on Justify several times down the stretch to beat Good Magic and then held off the late charge of two closers. The final margin was only a half-length and his 97 BSF dipped below the century mark for the first time.
Now Justify will try to become the 13th Triple Crown winner on June 9 at Belmont Park. History has its plusses and minuses for the big chestnut colt. Of course, Baffert just took the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah after missing in his first three attempts. However, many very talented horses have tried and failed in the years between Affirmed and Pharoah. Among the 13 horses that couldn’t win the Triple Crown in that time slot were Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and California Chrome. The Bid was one of the greatest horses of all time.
Then, there are those who will point to the close finish, the diminishing speed figures, the rigorous campaign, the mile and a half distance, and the fresh horses that await him as factors that Justify must overcome. A horse cannot become a Triple Crown winner unless they conquer the Belmont Stakes, which is rightly known as the “Test of the Champion.”
Photo of Justify, courtesy of Jim McCue (MJC)