For Southern California racing fans, these three words are music to the ear and medicine for the soul: JUSTIFY IS BACK! He arrived with police escort at Bob Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita Park on Sunday afternoon, in a spectacular Bob Hubbard van dressed with decals extolling his Triple Crown victory. In a bow to diplomacy, one side of the van featured the already iconic red and gold colors of the China Horse Club, while the opposite side headlined the familiar white silks with dark green insignia of WinStar Farm.
It was an uncharacteristically cool and cloudy day, in keeping with the weather machinations of the racing gods, who seem to be jealous of the beauty of Justify’s fiery coat when ignited by sunlight. He won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve under abysmal conditions over a track which had sustained a record rainfall, and he captured the second jewel of the Triple Crown surrounded by more rain and pea soup fog, which saw him emerging from the mist in his pale silks like the ghost of Preakness past. But now he was home, where his rainy odyssey had begun, and where the rumblings of the rumor of his greatness first shook the backside following his Feb. 18 maiden win, culminating in the seismic jolt of the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, only 111 days later.
By the time Justify’s entourage arrived, it was nearly one hour later than anticipated, and a large contingent of press and admirers were lining the barricades, cameras poised. Justify’s pony, Sunny, was the first to disembark, followed by an alert and ready-to-rip Justify, who appeared energized by the crowd’s enthusiasm. He must have tested the arm of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes as he was taken to the tow ring (the circular path on which horses are led in order to cool out).
Justify was immediately given water, and then proceeded to walk for approximately 45 minutes, stopping frequently to accommodate the photographers. He was largely patient with the process, and seemed to sense that HE was the reason everyone was there. Justify knows he is beautiful. He somehow knows that he has accomplished something astonishing and extraordinary in the world of humans. Seeing Justify “up close and personal,” one is stunned by the enormity of his physical presence, and by his innate nobility, which seems to be a common component of many great horses.
Justify’s pilot and pal, Mike Smith, was on the scene and mingled with the crowd, posing for photos, answering questions, and once again showing that he is one of racing’s all-around good guys. He admitted that he was tired. He didn’t look it. Neither did Justify.
The crowd stayed until Justify disappeared into the shadows of his home in stall 33, once occupied by 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. A few moments later, from within the confines of the shedrow, the sound of stomping hooves and snorting could be heard. This rain dancer of a horse, this huge-hearted horse of big chows and an even more voracious appetite for running, was ready for his dinner.