The whispers began at 6:30 a.m. on a quiet June morning at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. Some professional racing photographers and a few fans stood at clockers’ corner near the racetrack’s southwest edge. They hoped to see Justify, who had become the 13th Triple Crown winner a little more than two weeks previously.
“The big horse is coming.”
No one expected Justify to do more than gallop around the track. Trainer Bob Baffert was overseeing a maintenance workout designed to keep the 3-year-old colt fit until he and the owners made a decision about Justify’s next race.
Everything the strapping chestnut does these days attracts attention. Justify didn’t exactly emerge from obscurity—his pedigree and looks made him a $500,000 sale yearling in 2016 at the prestigious Keeneland auction in his native state of Kentucky. But in four short months, Justify went from an unraced, promising prospect to that rarest commodity in Thoroughbred racing: a Triple Crown champion.
Three Challenging Tests
The Triple Crown requires a 3-year-old to tackle the most difficult challenges in the sport. He—it’s usually a colt, but fillies have occasionally won individual races in the series—must face up to 19 others in the 11⁄4-mile Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.
Two weeks later in Maryland, it’s the 13⁄16-mile Preakness Stakes, followed by New York’s Belmont Stakes, which at 11⁄2 miles is longer than almost any other dirt race that modern Thoroughbreds run.
In 1919, before the races were firmly established as a prestigious series, Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner. Gallant Fox and his son Omaha completed it in 1930 and 1935, followed by War Admiral (sired by the great Man o’ War) in 1937.
The 1940s saw another rush of Triple Crown winners: Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation. That period was followed by what seemed an unbreakable drought of 25 years until the great Secretariat broke through in 1973. He was quickly followed by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.
The Longest Dry Spell
People were beginning to think horses could no longer win the Triple Crown as 37 years crawled by without another victor. However, Baffert, a former Quarter Horse racing trainer, had taken several runs at it, determined to prove he could successfully condition a horse to the peak performance that needs to be sustained throughout the series.
Many people came to know Baffert during the late 1990s, when he got achingly close to Triple Crown victory two years in a row. In 1997, his charge Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness but lost the Belmont by less than one horse length. In 1998, his underdog Real Quiet won the Derby and Preakness, only to lose the Belmont to Victory Gallop in a heart-stopping photo finish.
Elliott Walden trained Victory Gallop and now collaborates with Baffert on Justify. Walden serves as president, CEO, and racing manager of Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm LLC, which owns Justify with the China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners LLC, and Starlight Racing.
Before Justify, Baffert was the one to break the Triple Crown drought with Zayat Stables’ American Pharoah in 2015. That colt, who had the sweet disposition of a riding stable’s best push-button babysitter, revitalized the series. American Pharoah finished 2015 with an astounding victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, and is now standing at stud in Kentucky.
“American Pharoah—he’ll always be my first love,” says Baffert.
The Inner Workings
Baffert was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame because he and his team know how to get horses ready for huge performances. He has an instinct borne from years of training.
For example, during the weeks between Triple Crown races, Baffert could feel what Justify might need each morning by walking the colt the previous afternoon.
“I wanted see how much energy or power he had,” says Baffert. “Then I’d know what to do with him the next day. If he was quiet, then I’d go easy with him. But if he was really eager, I’d do a little bit more with him.”
Justify may be the star, but Baffert’s large operation also includes horses like Hoppertunity, who has earned more than $4 million, and McKinzie, who looked like Baffert’s best 2018 Triple Crown candidate until a minor injury sidelined the colt.
McKinzie originally had the April 7 Santa Anita Derby on his schedule, but didn’t make the race. So Baffert decided to keep Justify home for the Santa Anita Derby instead of shipping him to the Arkansas Derby. By then, Justify had won his first two races, and the buzz had begun.
The large crowd on a gorgeous Santa Anita Derby day included many in the track infield, and jockey Mike Smith’s only cause for concern happened when Justify raced down the track’s backside. He had a three-length lead over a talented colt named Bolt d’Oro, and then noticed all the people. He didn’t prop, swerve, or stop racing, but Smith could feel Justify react.
“I don’t know if he saw the umbrellas and everyone screaming, but he got to looking at them so much that I had to get the bit out of his mouth to really make him pay attention,” says Smith.
It was the only minor hiccup in Justify’s stellar career. Justify still won the Santa Anita Derby by three lengths, then had to contend with downpours and muddy tracks in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before encountering another beautiful day in the Belmont. Rain or shine makes no difference to Justify, who is undefeated in his career to this point.
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Back to R&R in California
On that morning in June at Santa Anita, the only thing Baffert asked of Justify and exercise rider Humberto Gomez was to follow Sunny, the barn pony and a former reining star, around half of Santa Anita’s track before breaking off for a solitary tour of the track at an easy gallop.
As Justify came past clockers’ corner, cameras clicked as professional photographers and fans furiously shot precious images of the champ. Later, back at the barn, Justify stopped every few moments to pose for the cameras while he was cooled out.
As of press time, Justify’s future plans are still up in the air. One thing is certain, however. He seems to understand how to graciously pose for photos so that his fans can say, “I saw Justify.”