The big chestnut did not fail to live up to the hype. He broke slowly, but then jumped back into contention, making up the lost ground on his own and getting his head in front by the first quarter. By the time he'd run half a mile, he had widened his lead to half a length, and he was still just cruising along with no urging. At the top of the stretch, he was five lengths clear of the field with nothing more than a bit of hand-riding to encourage him to pick up the pace, and he continued to draw away, winning by more than nine lengths in a quick time of 1:21.86. It was a sensational debut for a maiden, and racing pundits sat up and took notice.
|Justify's maiden win (via the Paulick Report)
Even though he had only two starts to his name, Justify certainly ran like a horse with Derby credentials, but in order to be eligible to run for the roses, he first needed to earn sufficient points to qualify. Baffert had originally planned to send him to the Arkansas Derby to prep as he had done with American Pharoah, but when his other top three year-old was sidelined with a bruised hock, Baffert decided to keep Justify in California for the Santa Anita Derby instead.
Facing more seasoned competition for the first time, including the talented Derby hopeful Bolt d'Oro, I thought Justify would likely be in over his head. Few horses are capable of running in a Grade 1 race in only their third start after all. Justify however broke well and moved easily to the lead, setting sensible fractions while running several lengths clear of the field. As they moved around the far turn, Bolt d'Oro began to close the gap, but before they'd even reached the quarter pole, his jockey had gone to the whip while Mike Smith still sat chilly. Coming to the top of the stretch, Bolt's jockey neatly cut the corner to save ground and moved to the inside. For a moment, he looked certain to gain on Justify, but with a little urging, Justify found another gear and pulled away again to win.
|Justify in the Santa Anita Derby (photo by Jae C. Hong/AP)
Rain fell steadily all day in Louisville on Derby day, and it didn't let up even for the post parade or race. Despite the sloppy track and the usual scrum of 20 horses and riders literally jockeying for position, Justify broke well and moved right to the front, bringing the race to longshot Promises Fulfilled who led into the first turn. Justify shadowed him closely through opening fractions of :22.24 for the first quarter and :45.77 for the half, a suicidal pace that I thought for sure meant he would be cooked turning for home. Horses simply don't run that fast in the opening stages of a mile and a quarter race and have enough left to finish competitively. Nonetheless, Justify took over the lead midway around the turn while Promises Fulfilled, who was indeed fried by the hot pace, faded rapidly and ultimately finished 15th, some 40 lengths behind Justify.
Good Magic and Audible, both talented colts, made a run at Justify in the stretch, but neither could narrow his lead. He swept under the wire two and half lengths in front, smashing the 136 year-old "Curse of Apollo." Justify's incredible Derby performance made a believer out of me---he was clearly more than just a precociously fast colt. To have pressed that sizzling pace and still have had enough left in the tank to win convincingly---easily even---suggested that he was a rare talent.
|(Photo by Darron Cummings/AP)
Once again, rain fell heavily on Preakness day, making for yet another sloppy track, Justify's third in only five starts. The deluge tailed off before post time, but thick fog rolled in to take its place. Visibility was reduced to a few hundred feet at best, meaning the horses were largely invisible from the grandstand until they were in deep stretch. Watching on TV, I was grateful for the multitude of cameras set all around the oval at Old Hilltop. The usual camera from the top of the grandstands would never have been able to find the field through the heavy fog.
|First time past the grandstand (Photo by Horse Nation)
|A little too close for comfort! (Photo by Mike Stewart/AP)
Horseman are often a superstitious bunch, especially people involved in horse racing. For example, one of Seattle Slew's co-owner's wore the same dress to the Preakness and Belmont after wearing it for his Derby victory. It had to be lucky, and why change something that might be working? Silly undoubtedly, but similar stories are woven throughout the history of the sport. So when it was announced that Justify would race with different silks for the Belmont, those of the China Horse Club rather than WinStar Farm (both part-owners of the horse), more than a few pundits predicted this change would doom his chances.
Nonetheless, Belmont day dawned clear and dry for once, and as horses probably can't see the color red anyway, Justify went to the post unconcerned by the change in his silks. Much like American Pharoah, he was sent right to the lead to dictate the pace. He settled into a comfortable rhythm and was allowed to set sensible, easy fractions with little pressure from the rest of the field. Watching him cruise around the first turn and up the backstretch, I was nervous, my heart was racing, and my hands had gone clammy. We might have had a Triple Crown only three years earlier, but watching Justify try for it was every bit as exciting.
Midway through the final turn, Justify still held the lead, and Mike Smith had not yet asked him to run. Behind him, the other jockeys were beginning to urge their mounts to pick up the pace. Seeing this, I was on the verge of hyperventilating---Justify clearly still had another gear while everyone else was struggling to catch him. At the top of the lane with a quarter-mile yet to run, Smith finally began to pump the reins and wave the whip, mostly to keep his horse from loafing on the lead. Gronkowski and Hofburg both made valiant attempts to catch Justify, but neither were really able to make up any ground, and Justify cruised under the wire a comfortable length and three-quarters in front. I of course screamed all through the stretch run again. Who could possibly believe we'd wait 37 years for a Triple Crown winner and then suddenly have two in the space of three years!
|Striding into the history books (Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP)
Justify's career spanned just shy of four months, a total of 112 days from his first start to his last. In that brief stretch of time, he went from a maiden winner to an undefeated Triple Crown champion. Given his dominance in every race, it seems hard to imagine him having any trouble with the final test of a three year-old, defeating older horses, but unfortunately, we'll never really know just how good he was. None of the other three year-olds this year were ever able to run with him and challenge him meaningfully. His winning times were solid if not scintillating, but his running style and winning margins suggest that he could have run faster had he been asked. There simply wasn't ever a need which in itself is pretty telling.
Knowing that Justify's sire had died untimely and that Coolmore (who stood Scat Daddy) had been making overtures to WinStar to buy Justify, his best son, it was a given the big chestnut would retire at the end of his three year-old season just as American Pharoah had done. That however doesn't do much to ease the disappointment of not seeing him race again this summer and fall. We are left to wonder what might have been and what more he might have achieved. For a few weeks, it seemed like we would have the chance to see not just two Triple Crown winners but maybe even two Grand Slam winners if Justify could score in the Breeders Cup Classic. I am grateful that we had the chance to see another brilliant horse like this without having to wait many long years as we did for Pharoah. Here's hoping that we are perhaps entering another golden decade of the sport like the 1940s or the 1970s!
* * *
A couple of years ago, I turned the head and swished the tail on this Lonesome Glory model, but I could never settle on which real horse I wanted to paint him after. Following Justify's retirement, the answer finally seemed obvious. I plan to paint a Classic-scale Justify portrait for myself at some point, but in the meantime, this guy is available on eBay. The auction ends this evening (Friday, August 17th).
"And they're into the stretch! And Justify comes roaring home to a raucous Belmont Park with one furlong to run! Gronkowski and Hofburg try to run him down. Vino Rosso is fourth. A sixteenth to go. Justify is still there! He's just perfect and now he's just immortal!"