Hangin’ With Haskin: Giving Thanks For Justify

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Justify wins the 2018 Kentucky Derby en route to becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner in North American Thoroughbred racing. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In the days leading up to the 1979 Belmont Stakes, with Spectacular Bid having dominated his opposition in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, if someone had asked you to give thanks that we were about to witness a Triple Crown winner, you might have been inclined to laugh in their face.

“Big deal,” you might have said. “So we have another Triple Crown winner. Who cares?”

Considering we had witnessed Triple Crown sweeps by Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed in 1978, and were 1-10 to witness yet another one in 1979, one could certainly understand your less-than-enthusiastic response. Three consecutive Triple Crown sweeps and four in the last seven years? How mundane it had become.

Had the Triple Crown become too easy and lost its magical luster? All we knew was that the days of wishing, hoping, and dreaming were over. Now it was something that was expected.

We were well aware that the decade of the ‘70s was special, with an array of superstars that rivaled or even surpassed the ‘40s when we had Triple Crown winners Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, and Citation, and Hall of Famers Armed, Stymie, Alsab, Devil Diver, Coaltown, Gallorette, Twilight Tear, Busher, and Bewitch.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the ‘70s was to be regarded in years to come as racing’s Golden Age, especially with every passing year and then decade without another Triple Crown winner. Ten years…20 years…30 years. So many failed attempts. So many heartbreaks. All those young racing fans of the ‘70s who had become spoiled by the Triple Crown and were expecting a sweep almost every year were now nearing retirement age, and those expectations of their youth had turned into expectations of failure. They were now convinced it would never happen again, as year after year the Triple Crown trophy was taken out of mothballs only to be placed back in storage following the Belmont Stakes.

Finally, after an interminable 37-year drought, with the somber images of Smarty Jones, Charismatic, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, California Chrome, Alysheba, Sunday Silence and others still fresh in our mind, we were able to witness the seemingly impossible – a Triple Crown winner.

Never before, at least not since Secretariat, had Belmont Park erupted in such rapture, such unrestrained celebration as when American Pharoah charged home in isolated splendor. Never had the grandstand rocked as it did that day. It was an explosion of emotion that had been pent up for nearly four decades.

But then something happened that caught many people by surprise. Not only was the once elusive Triple Crown conquered again only three years later, it was by a horse from the same stable as American Pharoah. Bob Baffert, like Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the ‘30s and Ben Jones in the ‘40s, was making the Triple Crown look easy once again.

Exhilaration after the Belmont Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2019, we will be in danger of having history repeat itself – thinking a Triple Crown sweep is a foregone conclusion. Just like the fans of the ‘70s who waited 25 years and then mistakenly took the feat for granted, we could be headed in that same direction. As the George Santayana quote goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I can feel the magical aura of Justify diminishing slightly as we drift further and further away in time from his Triple Crown victory, in addition to his early retirement and with the ascent of the 5-year-old Accelerate. Could Justify conceivably become the first Triple Crown winner in history not to be voted Horse of the Year? (In 1935, Discovery was informally the horse of the year over Triple Crown winner Omaha. The American Racing Manual of 1936 notes, “Discovery was the outstanding horse of 1935.”)

Whether he is voted Horse of the Year or not, we must remember those misguided fans of 1979 and give thanks for Justify and ignore that nagging little thought in our brain that the Triple Crown is becoming easy again. Do you really want to lose that magic you felt this past June and three years ago and start taking the Triple Crown for granted only to fall into that seemingly bottomless abyss that racing fans of the ‘70s encountered when they became indifferent and let the magic die?

We have many things to give thanks for this Thanksgiving. With all the human-induced tragedies we have suffered through in schools, synagogues, concerts, shopping malls, and office buildings around the country and all the natural disasters of catastrophic proportion, we must all give thanks for every day and all the enjoyment we get from life.

Justify provided us with great joy and made 2018 a year for the history books. What he accomplished in such a short period of time will most likely never be seen again.

So, as we give thanks this week, we should include Justify, regardless of how quickly his star shot across the sky. Don’t make the same mistake as those in the ‘70s and feel the Triple Crown is not as difficult as you thought. It is. And you do not want it to take 37 years to find that out.

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