Don't Take Justify's Greatness for Granted After Incredible Triple Crown Run

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2018

Justify never faltered while storming to his Triple Crown-clinching victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Justify never faltered while storming to his Triple Crown-clinching victory in the Belmont Stakes.Peter Morgan/Associated Press

Given that the days are long gone when horse racing inspired full-time passion from legions of fans, it's understandable if Justify's Triple Crown victory Saturday was met with a widespread, uncaring, "Oh, that happened again? And so soon?"

We've been conditioned to believe we're entitled to see only one or two Triple Crown winners in our lifetimes, if that. They're like total solar eclipses, snow leopard sightings and quintuplets. Rarity is their greatest attraction.

Alas, Justify's achievement comes just three years after American Pharoah survived the same tortuous journey of three grueling races against elite fields in five weeks on four vulnerable legs.

When Pharoah won, it was a hallelujah moment that ended 37 years of nail-biting frustration for horse racing's railbirds. During that span, 13 horses had claimed the crown's first two jewels, only to fail to close the deal. Pharoah's win made us all feel like we had witnessed the impossible.

Seeing a repeat so quickly perhaps makes this Triple Crown no more mind-boggling than the Golden State Warriors' third NBA title in four years or LeBron James' gazillionth visit to the Finals.

Ho-hum. Haven't we all seen this before?

Which is sad for Justify's legacy, because this is a beast who fits the profile of superhorse.

Justify won the 150th Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, in fantastic fashion, in the longest race of his life, taking the early lead and daring the other nine horses to push the pace while he ruled the moment wire-to-wire.

At the mile mark, Justify looked to be toast. There was too much talent log-jammed on his heels, ready to capitalize on the slightest fade. Surely one of those opponents would muster the demonic kind of finish we've seen undo so many Triple Crown threats.

But it never happened. Justify completed his sweep of the three races, galloping home with gigantic strides reminiscent of Secretariat, another chestnut colt who glowed red while solidifying his legend in Belmont's 1 ½-mile "Test of a Champion."

It's a hellacious accomplishment, and it makes Justify only the 13th Triple Crown winner in races that date back to the 1800s. Who cares about who else did what when?

The issue of whether a Justify Triple Crown would be diminished by its proximity to American Pharoah's run had been brewing all week.

Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey and NBC commentator told the Los Angeles Times' John Cherwa that no, the chase wasn't shaping up to be as epic as it was for Pharoah in 2015.

"I only speak for myself, but in general, interest might be a little less," Bailey said. "I think that people believe now that you can do it. This horse has won two of the three, and maybe it's not as hard as people thought. But those that have been around and saw the close calls know it's awful tough."

American Pharoah still looms large for breaking a decadeslong Triple Crown drought.
American Pharoah still looms large for breaking a decadeslong Triple Crown drought.Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press

A big part of the reduced celebration stems from horse racing's continual drop in popularity. It might be hard to believe for millennials and Generation Z, but when Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown 99 years ago, horse racing was one of the three biggest sports in America, along with baseball and boxing.

The drop-off has been steady, but horse racing was still vibrant enough to dominate the sports pages for brief spikes in the '70s, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won three Triple Crowns from 1973 to '78.

No one took a dim view of Slew because his winning margin at Belmont didn't equal Secretariat's stupefying 31-length victory. And when Affirmed completed his feat by outdueling Alydar in what amounted to three neck-and-neck match races, no one complained that the Triple Crown had become commonplace.

But Justify isn't just another Triple Crown winner. He has his own script, his own unique storyline. It might not lend itself to a Hollywood screenplay quite like Seabiscuit's did, but hey, let's not forget that while Seabiscuit the movie contended for seven Oscars, the real-life horse never won the Triple Crown.

So what else did Justify do?

He goes down as only the second horse to complete the Triple Crown quest without ever suffering a defeat, joining Seattle Slew.

He's the only thoroughbred to master racing's toughest task without running a single race as a two-year-old.

In a sport where breeding is everything, he rose to the pinnacle despite being sired by Scat Daddy, who commanded only a $35,000 stud fee.

He emerged from his Kentucky Derby victory with a potentially derailing heel bruise but overcame it with the creative help of a three-quarter horse shoe.

52-year-old jockey Mike Smith earned the biggest win of his career at Belmont.
52-year-old jockey Mike Smith earned the biggest win of his career at Belmont.Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

Throughout this historic season, he carried the oldest jockey to ever win the Triple Crown, 52-year-old Mike Smith.

He won among a Belmont field that featured four Hall of Fame trainers: D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen and, of course, Justify's own trainer, Bob Baffert.

He got this Triple Crown party started by winning what was considered the wettest, muddiest Kentucky Derby ever, and one that had a loaded field, with 10 winners of graded stakes races.

He claimed Belmont by barreling out of the No. 1 post position that's so prone to getting pinned on the rail, the dreaded starting position that belongs to the quick and the dead. Last time the Belmont winner survived that early disadvantage was Touch Gold, all the way back in 1997.

He essentially mocked the strategy of two of his biggest rivals, Hofburg and Vino Rosso, who were kept out of the Preakness Stakes in hopes of running down Justify at Belmont. They finished third and fourth, respectively, but did have a nice view of Justify's hind quarters the whole way.

Justify's victory adds credence to the claim that Bob Baffert is the greatest trainer ever.
Justify's victory adds credence to the claim that Bob Baffert is the greatest trainer ever.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Justify also is the horse who has vaulted trainer Baffert into the rarefied air of being a two-time Triple Crown winner.

The list of people associated with two Triple Crown winners is very short. Very.

Eddie Arcaro is the only jockey to ride a pair of them (Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in 1948). The only two breeders to produce a pair are Calumet Farm (Whirlaway and Citation) and BelAir Stud (the father-son team of Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935).

And the only two trainers to double up are James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox and Omaha) and now Baffert, who also won with American Pharoah.

Justify took Baffert to that promised land while also delivering a record-setting 15th victory in Triple Crown races for his trainer.

Disregard him if you must, but what more could Justify have done?

 

Tom Weir covered 20 Triple Crown races as a columnist for USA Today.

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