Friday, August 17, 2018

Justify: Bittersweet Immortality

Back in February, trainer Bob Baffert went to the Santa Anita racing secretary to make sure a particular maiden race would fill because he had, as he put it, a potential Kentucky Derby horse to enter. The secretary was justifiably gobsmacked---that's one hell of a boast to make about any horse, but especially an unraced three year-old less than 3 months out from the first Saturday in May. Still, Baffert had trained no less than four Derby winners already including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, so if anyone knew what a potential Derby horse looked like, it was Bob. The race filled and Justify went to the post as the odds on favorite after word of Baffert's confidence in him spread.

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)
A two-turn test in a muddy one mile allowance race was next with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard for the first time. Justify broke a step slowly again, and Smith was content to let the colt rate behind the leader around the first turn and down the backstretch. Midway around the far turn with no apparent urging from Smith, Justify launched himself forward and passed the tiring frontrunner in a few strides. By the top of the stretch, he was clear of the field, and he flew home with ears pricked to win by six and half lengths in a solid 1:35.73.

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)
I confess I was never really a fan of Justify's sire Scat Daddy nor of his sire Johannesburg. They were both precocious two year-olds who retired midway through their three year-old campaigns due to a seeming lack of stamina and/or injury, and I really didn't expect Justify would fare any better. The mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby tends to separate the men from the boys when it comes to distance ability, and many, many top youngsters have come up short in the stretch at Churchill Downs over the years. So while Justify came into the Derby off seemingly facile wins, I fully expected him to run out of gas at the quarter pole and finish up the track as his sire and grandsire had done before him. Furthermore, his juvenile training had been sidelined early on because of a pulled muscle, and he therefore did not race as a two year-old. No horse had been able to overcome that particular hurdle since Apollo in 1882, largely because building a foundation of strength and stamina over many months is essential for competing at classic distances. To say that the odds were stacked against Justify is an understatement.

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)
Worryingly, he was noticeably lame in his left hind the morning after the race. He was eventually diagnosed with a heel bruise and reshod with a three-quarter shoe before returning to galloping a few days later. With only two weeks between the Derby and Preakness, any setback like that is a cause for concern, but Justify seemed to bounce back with little fuss, and it was on to Pimlico as scheduled.

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)
Justify broke well and went to the lead, but this time Good Magic was sent with him and pressed the pace. The two horses raced head and head around the first turn, all down the backstretch, and around the far turn, too. Once or twice, Good Magic looked to have his head in front for a few strides, but Justify was utterly unfazed. As they neared the top of the stretch, Mike Smith turned Justify loose, and Good Magic grudgingly gave way. In the final sixteenth, Mike wrapped up on his mount, allowing late closers Bravazo and Tenfold to get terrifyingly close to nosing him out at the wire. I suspect Mike didn't realize how fast they were flying up behind him, and having put away Good Magic, he likely thought the race was won. Lucky for him, they ran out of track. Justify was headed to Belmont as the first horse since American Pharoah with a shot at the Triple Crown.

A little too close for comfort! (Photo by Mike Stewart/AP)
Having finally witnessed a Triple Crown only three years earlier, I was a bit nervous in the weeks leading up to the Belmont, but the resignation and expectation of disappointment that had always lurked at the back of my mind in past years were blessedly absent. Obviously, I did not want to wait another 37 years to see a Triple Crown winner again, but I felt fairly zen about the outcome of the race. Mostly. Whether or not Justify could win, it was going to be an exciting race, and even if he wasn't able to get the distance, he had still proven himself to be an outstanding horse. That said, I was prepared for Justify to not be a mile-and-a-half kind of horse, but having seen his extraordinary Derby performance, I was also hopeful that he really was a superhorse after all. To win the Belmont, he would need to be.

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)
Not surprisingly, the Belmont took a lot out of Justify, especially on top of such a short but rigorous campaign, and in the weeks following the race, Baffert reported that the horse had lost some weight, a typical consequence of a tough race. In early July, Justify returned to light training, pointing toward a late summer campaign. But after developing some inflammation in his left front ankle twice in the course of a week after workouts, his training was halted so the leg could be evaluated. When you've followed the sport as long as I have, you know these sort of pronouncements usually mean an extended break from racing, and very often outright retirement. Still, one always hopes for good news. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. On July 25th, Baffert and WinStar announced that the ankle was not responding to treatment as quickly as hoped, and because the necessary 60 to 90 day rest would mean missing the Breeders Cup Classic, the decision had been made to retire Justify. The news was disappointing but not unexpected.

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!

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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!"