There is no doubt that the Herculean-built Justify and his rapid ascension from unraced three-year-old to double Classic winner is worthy of a Greek chorus singing of his feats and quite possibly cautioning him against the sandy tides of Belmont Stakes’ history.
Yes, Justify is an imposing athletic figure seemingly conceived through lightning bolts. His four hooves have carried him farther, faster than any thoroughbred in history. Two jewels of the Triple Crown are already his. First, a stroll in the Louisville mud that left the son of Scat Daddy clean faced and fastest of all. Then, he withstood a challenge thrown down by two-year-old champ Good Magic; early, while holding off those far less accomplished late in the Baltimore fog and mud…again.
And aren’t Justify’s undefeated ways worthy of high praise? Since February, he has won all five of his lifetime races taking a maiden race, allowance race, and Santa Anita Derby before his Classic wins. Now, he clearly stands on the precipice of racing immortality. Though, he just as likely could become one more causality running around the longest racing oval in America.
The poems, songs, and stories of those rising rapidly to such heights are outnumbered by many more recalling tragic falls through melted wings, bodies cast into stone or madness in a maze. The Greeks knew of the vast wasteland between immorality and the drudgery of every day life. They knew only the fortunate few got to pass from one world to another and only after accomplishing the improbable, impossible. They also knew it was unwise to mess with fate.
So here we are a couple of weeks and days away from the Belmont Stakes. The fine folks of WinStar Farm, majority owners of Justify, are in the enviable position of holding a potential Triple Crown winner just 20 years after its high-minded and highly praised thoroughbred operation began. For two decades of hard work, WinStar may be bestowed with both the glory of winning, the almost unwinable, along with a financial windfall in breeding rights that could easily top $100 million dollars. (A reported $85 million breeding rights deal – $60 million now and a $25 million Triple Crown bonus – with Coolmore may have already been inked.)
One has to give credit to WinStar for if not cornering the market on this year’s Triple Crown, then at least holding the strongest hand of any of its competitors – with a stake in four Kentucky Derby starters and most importantly owning, the second most important three-year-old currently in training, the fast closing, third-place finisher from the Run for the Roses, Audible.
Audible stands in the barn of Todd Pletcher while sharing the same ownership as Justify, a powerful collection of deep-pocketed entities – China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing – along with WinStar. It is likely Audible will still be standing idle in Pletcher’s barn when the 150th Belmont Stakes gates spring open on June 9th. And who can blame WinStar for not actively campaigning both horses against each other with so much on the line?
Here’s the thing, holding Audible back makes the shrewdest business sense and gives Justify’s owners and fans the greatest potential for a Triple Crown win just three years removed from the last. Of course, running Audible would be a move of incredible sportsmanship, gracious as much as it would be courageous, with only the reward of presenting the best race possible as a return.
Either way WinStar may be tempting fate. Hold a strong competitor back, maybe another horse fills the void and beats Justify. Race Audible and he may run down the would-be king – a crown tarnished and millions of dollars flushed down the drain.
I say WinStar would be wise not to play kingmaker, but continue as racehorse owner. In the end, a Classic win by any horse increases its value and cements its ability against the very best the sport has to offer. A Justify loss with Audible left eating hay would be a double-edged tragedy that only Greek antiquity or horse racing history could write.
Photo of Justify courtesy of Coady Photography