Saturday, June 23, was a gift to those who dream of the glory days of racing’s past. Shortly after opening time of 10 a.m. PT, a throng of 3,000 patrons had already claimed their Justify posters and were standing patiently in a line which meandered through Santa Anita Park’s paddock gardens like a maze. All paths led to Mike Smith, rider of the Triple Crown winner, who was now vying for the title of the swiftest Sharpie in the west. Nate Newby, vice president of marketing at Santa Anita, marveled, “We have never seen anything close to this response for an autographed item.”
Surrounded by buoyant fans and a constant stream of banter from master-of-ceremonies George “O” Ortuzar of Angels radio AM 830 KLAA-ESPN, two bronze icons of Santa Anita’s storied history, “The Queen” Zenyatta and the irascible John Henry, were photo destinations for old-timers and newcomers alike. In the walking ring, the legendary Seabiscuit surveyed his domain, proudly wearing a Justify saddle cloth. The mayor and the City of Arcadia had declared Saturday as “Justify Day,” and its citizens were there to celebrate!
While these festivities were taking place on the front side, the back side of the racetrack was a study in contrasts. Workouts were done, and the stables were at rest. At Bob Baffert’s barn 5, Justify’s white cooler, commemorating his Triple Crown victory, was draped idly over a stile, lifting softly in the summer breeze. The sleepy silence of the late morning was broken by the arrival of a TVG crew to interview assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, whose golf cart, bearing the license plate ”Justify,” was parked nearby.
With a touch of disbelief still in his voice, Barnes commented to reporter Joaquin Jaime, “Well, its just a phenomenal process. We had a horse, McKinzie, in the barn at the time, and we were focusing on him, and Justify was just coming along, and he needed to get started, he needed to break his maiden. I think it was really important we got the two-turn allowance race into him before the Santa Anita Derby, and once we got through that, we were well on our way to Churchill Downs. But going there, you’re going to face the largest field you’ve ever faced, the biggest crowd a 3-year-old has ever faced, and this horse has only run three times, so he really stepped up his game, and he’s got such a good mind on him, he just did everything right. He never put himself in a bad spot. We had to deal with rain, torrential rains at Churchill, rain and fog in Baltimore, and then I have a guy ask me before the Belmont, ‘What if it doesn’t rain?’ And I go, ‘Well, what if he doesn’t like the mud?’ I always all along wanted to see him run on a dry track, which he did, and he proved he was the champion 3-year-old.”
It had been a typical California “June gloom” morning, but an hour before the hometown hero’s scheduled appearance, the sky brightened, and the gods decreed that Justify would have a sunlit day for what may well be his last official appearance at the track where he had made his debut only 124 days before.
As the time neared 1:30, there was a stir in the air, and several security guards appeared on the scene, walkie-talkies in hand. They would escort Justify throughout his route. The smattering of press which had stood guard outside the barn snapped to attention with the call of “Bring him out!” Racing’s reigning monarch, who became a golden boy in the Kentucky Derby, a prince in the Preakness, and a king in the Belmont, emerged from the shadows of the shed row. Accompanied by his ever-present groom, Eduardo “Lalo” Luna, Justify loped alongside his companion easily, looking as if he had just been roused from sleep. The chief security officer alerted his crew with the announcement, “THE HORSE IS ON THE MOVE!” and Justify was on his way, past the receiving barn, and down the west gardens pathway to the saddling barn. Fans, holding their cell phones aloft as if in salute, lined the way, calling his name, applauding, and basking in the glow which emanates from a truly great horse.
In the saddling area, Justify was kept to the eastern portion of the divided barn. The fans which had gathered on the viewing steps were allowed a generous amount of time for photos, as Justify was walked back-and-forth, and in-and-out of the various stalls, occasionally pausing for a more posed shot. Meanwhile, in the paddock, two large screens showed replays of Justify’s six races, including his win in the Santa Anita Derby. At one point, the call for the fourth race at Santa Anita and the tumult of the large crowd could be heard, and Justify raised his head, his eyes bright with interest, ears pricked. He knew that sound.
Following the race, Justify was led into the paddock, where fans were stacked three and four rows deep, awaiting his entrance. He was joined by his human family: Jill and Bob Baffert, who was wearing his Belmont blue jacket, exercise rider Humberto Gomez, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes, and jockey Mike Smith, in WinStar colors, who had somehow managed to fulfill every fan’s wish of getting his autograph that day. Justify’s trip around the paddock was taken with aplomb, as if it were part of his everyday routine. He did not so much as turn a well-brushed hair.
His final tour of the outer grounds complete, Justify exited the paddock and entered the tunnel leading to the track. When he emerged from the darkness, the sunlight sparked the fire in his red coat, a picture of such breathtaking beauty that in that moment it became a memory in mind and heart for all time. To the music of “I Love L.A.” and the claps and cheers of the crowd, Justify walked the length of the outer fence to the clubhouse, then sauntered to the winners circle, a place that he owned at every racetrack he had ever visited. After being greeted by his human connections, Justify began to show some liveliness, and groom Lalo had to circle him several times in order to settle him for the photos.
His duties for the day royally done, Justify was led out of the winner’s circle and down the homestretch, all eyes following him until he was a small piece of fire shining in the distance. None of us can gauge the magnitude of this horse’s greatness, and if he retires as soon as is expected, we will never know. But one thing is certain. When I left the track on Saturday, I was convinced that when the Almighty creates a great horse, he often dreams in chestnut.
Back in the winner’s circle, Bob Baffert was reflective as to the makings of a horse such as Justify. “As you can see, he looks pretty incredible. We’ve always been lucky with him. He’s stayed healthy, which for a colt is pretty difficult It’s unheard of, running that many times. Everybody kept waiting for him to go the other way, but he didn’t.
“He is just so superior to the other horses, like American Pharoah; they’re super horses. There’s something about him. They’re physical. His heart must be huge, like Secretariat’s. They can handle things so well. He’s very intelligent. He knows when he’s on and when he’s not. Today, he knew it was all for show and he was pretty cool. But you could see, he was waking up there…it’s been a good long journey."