Justify: History Made in a Flash

Undefeated Justify captured the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 2018, to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in U.S. racing history. (Eclipse Sportswire)

He exuded brilliance from the moment he first set foot on a racetrack. He pummeled his opposition in front-running style, sprinting hard from the gate and daring his rivals to catch him. A brave few dared to challenge him, but none were able to lower his colors.

His name was Justify, and in the span of 113 days – from Feb. 18 through June 9, 2018 – he transformed from an unraced maiden into racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, an unprecedented and meteoric rise through history that left racing fans breathless and awestruck.

Justify was born to be a star. Bred by John D. Gunther, the chestnut colt was a son of acclaimed stallion Scat Daddy out of the mare Stage Magic, a daughter of 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. With such illustrious heritage, it was no surprise to see Justify sell for $500,000 as a yearling. While his ownership would change throughout his career as partnerships shifted and expanded, his greatest triumphs would come for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing.

Initially trained in Kentucky by Rodolphe Brisset, Justify soon traveled to California to take up residence in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. In 2015, Baffert had executed a masterful training job with American Pharoah, whose victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes completed a sweep of the elusive Triple Crown, ending a fabled 37-year drought.

The possibility of Baffert winning a second Triple Crown seemed impossible to fathom, and yet, Justify showed so much potential in his early training that Baffert began to wonder if he had another star on his hands. The tricky part would be preparing Justify for the Kentucky Derby. It wasn’t until February of the colt’s 3-year-old season that Justify was ready to debut, and with time running short, Baffert needed to find a race for him sooner rather than later.

An oft-told story recounts how Baffert entered Justify in a Feb. 18 maiden race at Santa Anita Park, then paid a visit to Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle to confirm enough horses had been entered for the race to be run. “He walked in and said he had a horse in the race that could win the Kentucky Derby,” Hammerle recalled in an article by Lenny Shulman in the Nov. 10, 2018 edition of BloodHorse magazine. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but when Bob says something like that, you take it seriously.”

Fortunately, the race went off as scheduled, and Justify delivered on Baffert’s lofty expectations. With jockey Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle, Justify overcame a slow start to duel for the lead, blow away his rivals with ease on the turn, and power away down the homestretch to win by 9 ½ lengths. His final time of 1:21.86 for seven-eighths of a mile was stunningly fast over a track that had been playing slow throughout the winter.

One race down, but how many to go? With just 2 ½ months until the Kentucky Derby, time was of the essence in preparing the talented but lightly-raced colt for the first Saturday in May. Initially, Baffert kept his cards close to his vest, suggesting to the media that Justify might target the Grade 3 Sunland Derby for his second career start. Instead, Baffert snuck Justify into a one-mile allowance optional claiming race on March 11 at Santa Anita. With Baffert’s go-to big-money jockey Mike Smith taking over riding duties, Justify showed a new dimension tracking a fast pace before powering clear to dominate four rivals by 6 ½ lengths at odds of 1-20.

Having successfully stretched his speed in a two-turn race, Justify wheeled back four weeks later in the April 7 Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, where he figured to face a stiff test from the two-time Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro. On paper, it should have been a close match. But Justify laughed at this notion, carving out the pace and turning back Bolt d’Oro’s bid in the homestretch to win by three lengths.

This performance stamped Justify as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 5, where he would challenge history and attempt to defy the fabled “Apollo Curse.” No horse since Apollo in 1882 had won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, a 135-year streak that had felled such talented runners as Coaltown, Forego, and Curlin – all of them future Horses of the Year.

And then the rains came. In the hours leading up to the Derby, nearly three inches of rain descended on Churchill Downs, nearly triple the previous record established 100 years prior. To win the Derby, Justify would have to out-sprint and out-stay nineteen rivals over a sloppy, sealed track that could safely be considered the wettest in the history of the Derby.

The pressure was on, but Justify was up to the task. He used his superior speed to challenge for the lead through fractions of :22.24 and :45.77, faster than any Derby winner had ever run. Then, in the long Churchill Downs homestretch, he used his reserves of stamina to gallantly hold off the closers, turning back a challenge from Good Magic, 2017’s champion 2-year-old male, to pull away and prevail by 2 ½ lengths.

Justify had made history. The Apollo Curse had been shattered. The colt was universally praised as a superstar in the making.

But Justify still had an encore in store.

Continuing his accelerated racing schedule, Justify traveled to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes on May 19, where he was favored at 2-5 to defeat seven challengers in the second leg of the Triple Crown. Again, rainfall reduced the track to mud, and heavy fog obscured portions of the race from view, even for television cameras.

The fog only added to the drama of an epic showdown. From the moment the gates opened, Justify found himself engaged in a heated battle for supremacy with Good Magic. The latter, determined to reverse the finish of the Derby, pressed Justify through testing fractions for the first mile. He even threatened to put his head in front as the two high-class colts disappeared into the fog on the far turn, still locked together with neither giving an inch.

As onlookers strained to catch a glimpse of the battle, Justify and Good Magic emerged from the fog still battling, but with Justify clinging to a tenacious advantage. In the final furlong, Good Magic flinched as Justify’s relentless strides widened the gap between them. The longshots Bravazo and Tenfold came rallying fast to edge Good Magic for the minor awards, but their challenges fell short of Justify, who held on under a confident ride from Smith to win by half a length.

It wasn’t as flashy as his romp in the Santa Anita Derby. It wasn’t as historic as his victory in the Derby. But in the Preakness Stakes, Justify showed the ability to look a horse in the eye, defeat him in a head-to-head battle, and survive a close finish even while leg-weary and running on fumes.

With victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Justify had a shot to earn immortality in the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, but the task would not be easy. The son of Scat Daddy would be stretching out to 1 ½ miles, a distance longer than ideal according to pedigree experts, and he would do so while facing nine talented rivals.

One more time, Justify entered the starting gate. One more time, he seized the early advantage and led his pursuers on a merry chase. One more time, Justify turned for home with history on the horizon. And one more time, he stemmed off all challengers to cross the wire in front, a winner by 1 ¾ lengths of the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.

“It’s a privilege to have a horse like this,” Baffert said after the race, as recounted by Lenny Shulman in the June 16, 2018 edition of BloodHorse magazine. “I wanted to see this horse’s name up there with the greats. He is a magnificent animal… He showed such raw talent early on, and by his second race, I thought this could be possible.”

Unfortunately, a slight ankle injury caused just enough of a delay in Justify’s training that his connections announced his retirement on July 25. The Belmont Stakes would be his last hurrah, but what a last hurrah it was. During the course of six races in four months, Justify redefined the notion of brilliance in Thoroughbred racing, defeating every challenger with confidence and poise that belied his lightly-raced nature. He retired to Ashford Stud in Kentucky with a hefty stud fee of $150,000, and if his foals inherit even half of his speed, stamina, and willingness to win, they’ll soon be burning up racetracks across the country.

One thing seems certain – it will be many years before another colt comes along and replicates Justify’s brief but unprecedented career. Perhaps, many years from now, racing fans will refer to the “Justify Curse” while remembering the rapid rise of racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner.

Such respect would certainly be justified.

Fun Facts

  • Thanks to his Triple Crown sweep and undefeated season, Justify was named Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male at the 2018 Eclipse Awards.
  • During his perfect 6-for-6 campaign, Justify earned $3,798,000, an average of $633,000 per start.
  • Justify is the only Triple Crown winner to retire undefeated.

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