BY BECOMING JUST THE SECOND UNBEATEN TRIPLE CROWN WINNER, JUSTIFY PACKED EPIC ACHIEVEMENT INTO A MERE 112-DAY CAREER, AND JOINED THE PLAYERS (AND THE PLAYS) THAT TOOK OUR BREATH AWAY
JUSTIFY'S 2018 season lasted 112 days, far fewer than most of the other great athletes featured in these pages. It gets better: Justify's entire career lasted 112 days. It began on a February Sunday in Southern California and ended on the second Saturday in June on Long Island, where he finished off thoroughbred racing's 13th Triple Crown—and the second in four years after a 37-year drought—with a victory in the Belmont Stakes. He ran six times and retired into the thin air of history. The sport had never seen anything like it. It was as if a swimmer began training for the Olympics in April and won a gold medal.
Justify's achievement was so astounding and so ephemeral that some racing pundits have ginned up a controversy over whether he should be voted Horse of the Year in the sport's year-end Eclipse Awards. Claiming his campaign was too brief and criticizing him for not going on to race against older horses (the Triple Crown is for 3-year-olds, the thoroughbred equivalent of college freshmen), they whiff on the central point: Justify wasn't great in spite of the brevity of his season and career; he was great because of it. He wasn't Emmitt Smith, he was Gale Sayers. He wasn't John Smoltz, he was Mark (the Bird) Fidrych. His excellence was defined not by quantity but by quality, a lifetime compressed into a single spring.
His trainer was Bob Baffert, the white-haired Hall of Fame impresario who guided American Pharoah to his Triple Crown, in 2015, ridding the sport of the gap between Triples that had haunted it more deeply with each passing spring. That was planned nearly a year in advance. This one came together in a blur. When Justify, a towering chestnut, was walked into the starting gate for a seven-furlong race at Santa Anita on Feb. 18, most of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes had already run several times, following their intricate schedules. Justify was a late-bloomer who didn't compete until he was three, and no horse since Apollo, in 1882, had won the Kentucky Derby without running as a 2-year-old (hence, the Apollo Curse). But in that first race, Justify ran himself into and then out of trouble and won. Baffert told me months later, "I thought, Wow, this is a serious horse." He decided to take his precocious kindergartner and skip some grades.
Justify won two more prep races, then the Derby on the first Saturday in May. Two weeks later, worn down by his schedule and challenged in the slop by 2-year-old champion Good Magic, he took the Preakness. At Belmont Park he finished the job, becoming, after Seattle Slew in 1977, just the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner.
And then it was over. Justify was retired in July in a stud deal approaching $75 million, the richest in history. It is the harsh financial reality of the racing game that great horses spend their primes in the breeding shed. Justify was here and gone, a gift to those who watched, a prize for those who shared. One of 13, but unlike all the others.