Publish date:

CROWNING GLORY

Author:

JUST THREE YEARS AFTER AMERICAN PHAROAH WON THE TRIPLE CROWN, RACING FANS WERE SPOILED WITH ANOTHER: THE UNDEFEATED JUST IFY LED THE BELMONT WIRE TO WIRE TO BECOME THE 13TH HORSE TO JOIN THE RANKS OF THE IMMORTAL

HISTORY WRITES a chapter for each of them and the book of the Triple Crown becomes longer and richer. A tale for the horse from a century ago, the very first. Tales for the three in the 1930s and the four in the '40s, golden ages both; for Big Red most of all, and for Slew and Affirmed. And for the sleek bay colt who three years ago ran wire to wire in the setting sun and lifted a curse that had lingered for nearly four decades. The earth shook beneath Belmont Park that day because the sport had waited so long and wanted it so badly. No one could have known that the next chapter would come so soon. No one could have known that there is always more that we can surrender to greatness when it arrives. And so: Again.

The horse's name is Justify. He is a tall, muscular chestnut-colored colt, the type that painters paint and sculptors cast, and on a Saturday evening, in the same long shadows that have followed so many champions before, he won the 150th Belmont Stakes and racing's 13th Triple Crown. He is just the second undefeated Triple Crown champion (the first was Seattle Slew in 1977), his perfect record written in a frenetic six-race career that began on Feb. 18, a breakneck 112 days from first race to Belmont. The architect of this furious rush to immortality is trainer Bob Baffert, 65, who also trained American Pharoah to the Triple Crown three years ago, the second trainer—after Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s—to win two Triple Crowns.

"Unbelievable training job, one of the greatest of all time," said Chad Brown, who trained Gronkowski to a runner-up finish at 25--1 odds. "Just adds another incredible accomplishment to an incredible career."

Baffert saw it another way. He saw Justify as a gift to be honored with his best work. His voice cracked after the race as he sought to describe the last four months and, in a sense, all the years that came before. "It's a privilege to have a horse like this," he said. "I just wanted to see his name up there, with those greats, winning the Triple Crown." Baffert is old enough to have accumulated scars that sting more on emotional days, good or bad. "I was thinking about my parents," he said after the Belmont. They died a year apart less than a decade ago. And more: "I think about friends I've lost." And finally: "To train a horse like this.... He's just a magnificent animal."

Justify was guided to Baffert by a group of owners in which Kentucky's WinStar Farm has controlling interest of the horse, with smaller pieces held by the China Horse Club, Boston-based hedge-fund manager Sol Kumin and Louisville-based Starlight Racing. His jockey is Mike Smith, a physical marvel at age 52, who climbed aboard Justify for the colt's second race, on March 11.

Justify led every step of the grueling 1½ miles of the Belmont, a distance longer than he will run again (in what is likely to be a very brief racing career). In this way the race was a rerun of American Pharoah's victory in 2015, a gallop around the massive oval called Big Sandy, towing a field of lessers in his wake whose jockeys and trainers faced an impossible dilemma: Pressure early and risk collapse, or hope that Justify's demanding schedule would catch up to him and make him vulnerable in the end. Four hours before the race Baffert said, "Anybody who goes with him is sacrificing themselves."

None did. Entering the turn, Justify opened two lengths on the fading Restoring Hope, who is also trained by Baffert, and Vino Rosso. Smith let off the gas and Justify relaxed. "He gets into that rhythm," said Smith. "He takes a little breather and then he goes again. If I wanted him to relax, I would just drop my hands, and if I wanted to him to go, I would just squeeze on him a little."

At the head of the stretch the big horse again opened up a two-length lead. Vino Rosso drifted out and let Gronkowski through on the rail. Hofburg got into his best stride with 300 yards left. Smith waved his stick at Justify and then hit him, four times in the last three-sixteenths. A roar built, as it had with Pharoah. Smith breezed past the line, scrubbing on Justify's mane, 1¾ lengths clear of Gronkowski. In a second-floor box above the finish, Baffert pumped his fist and hugged his wife, Jill. He was surrounded by his four grown children from his first marriage and 13-year-old Bode, his son with Jill.

Because Justify's victory came so soon after Pharoah's, it's instinctive to compare them: the noise, the buzz. But they cannot be fairly compared. Pharoah's victory was a communal bloodletting that ended 37 years of desperation. Justify's was a celebration of singular greatness. Different. But also the same.

Or as Jill Baffert said, delightfully, just outside the winner's circle, "It's just as tasty."

NINE DAYS had passed since the Preakness, and 12 days remained until the Belmont. It was Memorial Day morning in Louisville, and Baffert pointed his rented Infiniti SUV east toward Lexington on Route 64. He had already watched Justify gallop a feisty 13/8 miles alone at Churchill, then a man who suffered a heart attack six years ago bravely scarfed down a plate of fried chicken and gravy at a Cracker Barrel near the track.

Afterward he swung his car into the left lane and headed toward Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky., to visit American Pharoah. Baffert likes to visit Pharoah, who connects him—and the sport—to a remarkable time. Horses like Pharoah and Justify transport the people around them. They transport the entire sport.

He met up with Pharoah in the early afternoon. At the end of his career, after the Breeders' Cup Classic in November 2015, American Pharoah weighed 1,175 pounds. He's now 1,391, softer but still shimmering. He breeds to more than 200 mares a year, which, easy jokes aside, is an exhausting schedule. But his demeanor has changed little. Baffert stroked his neck. "He loves humans," he said. "Justify doesn't love humans. He'll give you about four or five seconds and that's it."

They are athletically dissimilar too. "Pharoah looked like a European horse," said Baffert. "Beautiful, lean, perfectly balanced. Justify has muscle on muscle. He's like LeBron James. Pharoah was like Michael Jordan."

Justify was shipped by WinStar Farm to Baffert's care late last fall. Minor injuries had prevented him from running the major 2-year-old races, but on Jan. 29 at Santa Anita, Baffert worked him five furlongs. "Owners wait for me to make the call and tell them they've got a good horse," says Baffert. "I made some calls that day." There were just 97 days to the Derby, and most contenders had already logged multiple races. Baffert decided to put the process in the microwave.

He ran Justify in a seven-furlong race on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita, under 23-year-old jockey Drayden Van Dyke, who got Justify into a speed duel. "I thought, s---, he's done," says Baffert. "And then at the quarter pole, he explodes. I was like, Wow, this is a serious horse." Baffert replaced Van Dyke with Smith, who had taken Van Dyke into his Southern California home when Van Dyke moved to the area.

Baffert and Smith have shared a tumultuous—but not unusual—trainer-jockey relationship. It started 16 years ago when Baffert put Smith on Vindication, a beastly 2-year-old who went unbeaten and won the Breeders Cup Juvenile. In the winter Baffert replaced Smith with Jerry Bailey and promised Smith, "I'll make it up to you someday." (Vindication was injured and never raced again.) They went on and off for a decade and a half, until Baffert put Smith on Arrogate in 2016 and together they went on a four-race tear. On Justify, Smith won an allowance, the Santa Anita Derby and then the Kentucky Derby, the first horse in 137 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.

Just before the postrace press conference in Louisville, Baffert said to Smith, "You remember Vindication?" Smith nodded. Baffert said, "We're even, dude."

Says Smith, "Bob put me on the bench for a while. But we kept talking. You always, always, always keep the lines of communication open. Never burn a bridge."

On the day after Baffert's trip to Lexington, he watched from a balcony above the finish line at Churchill as Justify prepared for his half-mile work. "I'm nervous," he said. Justify's Preakness had been courageous but not dominant. Some handicappers called it a sign of fatigue. Baffert said Justify needed a tough effort and compared it with American Pharoah's Kentucky Derby, a grinding victory that laid the foundation for stellar performances in the Preakness and the Belmont. "The Preakness will make [Justify] better," Baffert said before this workout. But he wanted validation.

For the workout he had flown in Martin Garcia, his top exercise rider. At 7:28 a.m., Garcia steered Justify onto the nearly empty track. "Chilito," said Garcia. It's a word with some vulgar connotations, but in this case, Garcia meant that Justify was calm and relaxed.

Moments later Justify scored four furlongs, effortlessly, in less than 47 seconds. "Beautiful, beautiful," said Baffert. "Awesome. Just awesome." Pause: "Not nervous anymore."

As Baffert hustled into an elevator, Garcia called on the radio. "Chingon, patron," he said. It was the same term he had used with Pharoah after a similar workout three years earlier, also with some ugly connotations but in other ways, loosely translated: Strong. Tough. Badass.

EARLY IN the morning on Belmont Saturday, Baffert visited Justify in his stall in Barn 1. Hours later he was asked, What was he like? Baffert, standing under a canopy of spring trees in the paddock, raised his eyebrows and looked over the top of his ubiquitous sunglasses. "He's ready," he said. "So ready."

The starting gate slammed open at 6:50 p.m., and Justify broke alertly—"Maybe the best he's ever broken," said Smith. He nudged Justify into the lead approaching the first turn. Nobody tried to push him.

"There was no pace and nobody put any pressure on him," said Bill Mott, trainer of third-place Hofburg. "You can't doubt [Justify] now. He's probably a great horse. Everybody had an opportunity to take their shot. They let it go too easy."

It started less easy than Baffert and Smith might have liked, the first quarter mile in 23.37 seconds. "A little quick," said Baffert. Smith slowed the second quarter to 24.74 and the third to 25.10. Before the race Baffert had said he wanted three quarters in 1:13 or 1:14. Justify passed three quarters in 1:13.21. There was no chance of catching him at that pace.

Gronkowski broke horribly and fell 14 lengths behind on the first turn. (Baffert, meanwhile, was thrilled to have snagged a photo of minority owner Rob Gronkowski with Bode, prerace.) Under jockey Jose Ortiz, Gronkowski cut the second corner and briefly seemed to have a shot. That shot vanished when Smith asked Justify for more.

As darkness fell on Belmont Park, the Triple Crown near misses of decades past receded further from memory, old wounds healed over, nearly forgotten. Three years ago the curse was ended and a sport felt relief. On Saturday the sport found adulation again. This much we know: The feeling will never get old.

"IT'S A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE A HORSE LIKE THIS," BAFFERT SAYS. "I JUST WANTED TO SEE HIS NAME UP THERE."