In American sports, championships are a predictable annual event. Every fall there’s a World Series; every February the Super Bowl; and every June there’s an NBA championship team.
American horse racing can guarantee an annual winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. But, it’s the extremely rare year that the same three-year-old equine athlete will win all three of those historic and prestigious races to become a Triple Crown champion. In the 99 years of the Triple Crown, only thirteen horses have met the challenge and triumphed, with the most recent being Justify, crowned on Saturday, June 9.
The Triple Crown asks a lot, physically and mentally, of its equine competitors and their team. This challenge is not for the faint of heart. It takes athleticism, patience, and determination…and a dose of horse racing luck never hurts, either.
Before 2015, American horse racing fans had wondered if the Triple Crown would ever be won again. It had been 37 years since Affirmed won in 1978. Many had tried, but none had succeeded. One of the closest had been fan favorite California Chrome, who fell short in the 2014 Belmont.
Then, in 2015, American Pharoah appeared on the scene. Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and ridden by Victor Espinoza, Pharoah won the 12th Triple Crown, ending the 37 year drought. This wasn’t his trainer’s first campaign for the Triple Crown. Baffert had almost tasted victory in 1997 with Silver Charm, in 1998 with Real Quiet, and in 2002 with War Emblem. But he’d been denied in the Belmont each time.
2018 began with Bolt d’Oro from the Mick Ruis barn and McKinzie from the Baffert stable as two possible contenders for the race for the Triple Crown. However, when an injury sidelined McKinzie, it looked like Baffert was out of the running. But, the trainer had a true ace up his sleeve- Justify, a colt who had never competed as a two-year-old. Baffert first ran Justify in a small field, maiden race at Santa Anita in February. That victory was followed by another in a claiming race in March and then the famed Santa Anita Derby in April. That win (over Bolt d’Oro) gave Justify a path to the Kentucky Derby.
Justify’s “greenness” generated many naysayers (or should that be neigh-sayers since this is horse racing?) during his campaign for the Triple Crown. Having only competed as a three-year-old, how would he handle the Run for the Roses in Kentucky? Nicely, it turned out, despite the rain.
Next, it was on to the Preakness. Justify seemed to possibly have a bruised hoof after the Kentucky Derby. Would he heal in time? Fortunately, he was fine. But then the weather acted up again, this time with drenching rain that left Baltimore’s Pimlico racetrack a literal muddy swamp. Add to that fog which obscured part of the track (and NBC’s national broadcast), plus a major challenge from Chad Brown’s Good Magic for the majority of the Preakness. Nevertheless, Justify still emerged triumphant!
Even after that victory, the naysayers pitched in again, saying Justify had looked tired near the end of the Preakness. They wondered if for the Belmont, the longest of the three races at 1 ½ miles, Justify had the endurance for the distance. They speculated he might be passed by Bravazo who had been a hard-charging second at the end of the Preakness.
Saturday, June 9, exactly 45 years to the date since the great Secretariat won the Triple Crown, Justify would silence the doubters. The day started bright and warm, which had some wondering if Justify would miss the rain. They obviously forgot his home stable is Santa Anita Park in sunny Arcadia, California.
Then, superstition raised its ugly head. Justify is owned by a partnership which includes WinStar Farm and China Horse Club International. For the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith had donned WinStar’s white racing silks. But, for the Belmont, he would be switching to China Horse Club’s red silks with gold stars. Superstitious sports fans, who believe once you’re on a streak don’t mess with it, had qualms about this move.
Despite all these doubts, Justify’s team never wavered. Justify acted like a trouper, working out quite comfortably over Belmont’s sandy surface. Baffert was cautiously optimistic, enjoying events in New York including ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and throwing out the first pitch at a Mets game. For his part, jockey Smith kept it relatively quiet, concentrating on the task ahead for himself and Justify.
For the Belmont, Justify had drawn the number one post. When the gates opened, he took off to the lead and held onto it the entire distance. His closest competition came from another Baffert horse, Restoring Hope, and D. Wayne Lukas’ Bravazo. At the one mile marker, Todd Pletcher’s Vino Rosso began to advance, hoping to challenge Justify. But, Smith and Justify continued unfazed to capture the Triple Crown.
Immediately after the race, Smith appeared stunned, remarking to the congratulatory outrider, “I don’t know what to do.” In the stands, Baffert was equally amazed by his second Triple Crown win, a feat only accomplished by one other trainer, “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons via wins in 1930 (Gallant Fox) and 1935 (Omaha). Baffert commented that winning, “Never gets old.” But, even while basking in the glow of Justify’s win, the trainer didn’t forget the first horse to give him a Triple Crown, American Pharoah, saying, “He’ll always be my first love.”
Justify’s Triple Crown win is, first and foremost, an accomplishment of true athletic prowess by Justify. It is also a tribute to the dedication and skills of Baffert and Smith. Plus, it is an inspiring example of persevering despite doubts and challenges. In spite of difficult weather conditions and negative comments from outsiders, the Justify team continued undaunted, showing that determination and talent (plus a pinch of luck) can combine to create victory.