2018: Justify's Triple Crown

In the three months before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, Justify became the hottest subject in all of Thoroughbred racing. After his eye-popping debut in February at Santa Anita that saw him win by over nine lengths, he followed that up with a successful routing debut in an allowance contest. Next was a jump into Grade I company in the Santa Anita Derby, and no horse in the field could match Justify. In the span of only three starts, the Bob Baffert charge was undefeated at three different distances and showed he could win from gate to wire or by tracking the leaders. Although lightly raced, Justify was creating a buzz as the racing world shifted its focus to the Kentucky Derby.

Justify was made the morning line favorite for the race, and he would take on nineteen horses on the track. There was also one glaring fact associated with him throughout the leadup to the Run for the Roses. Justify had never raced at the age of two, and the last horse to do that and win the Kentucky Derby was Apollo back in 1882. There had been three year olds who raced against what was dubbed the "Apollo Curse" before, but no one was successful. If Justify won the Derby, history was going to be made.

Of course, Justify had to also navigate 1 1/4 miles, something no one in the field had yet even attempted. On top of that, rain invaded Louisville, and that meant dealing with an off track. With Mike Smith at the helm, Justify stayed close to the front in second for a while before making his move, chasing fast fractions along the way. The surface did not bother him one bit, and he was the clear leader in the far turn. One horse, Good Magic, tried to beat him in the stretch, but Justify was too much, getting to the wire while accomplishing what no other horse had done in more than a century. Triple Crown or not, Justify's victory was historical.

The weather would again play a factor as the Triple Crown season continued. Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, Pimlico Race Course took center stage for the Preakness Stakes. Justify not only had another off track in front of him, but there was also fog. He took on both, and an epic duel with Good Magic for much of the way although the pace was more moderate than in the Derby. In the stretch, Justify led, but Good Magic did not give up on the inside and some horses came rapidly from the outside to try to steal the race. Somehow, Justify held off all of them, putting together a decent Preakness time given the weather and keeping his Triple Crown aspirations intact.

With the Belmont Stakes coming up, the question was whether Justify had enough to complete the sweep. He had defied the odds more than once in just a few short months. Less than four months earlier, he was a debut winner. Now, he had a chance for immortality. This was a story that was being seen, yet could not be believed. Even if a win in the Belmont was not in the cards, what Justify had accomplished was nothing short of awe-inspiring. If he did get the win, then it was the most unbelievable Triple Crown in racing history.

Justify had no fog or off track for the Belmont. Just nine rivals and 1 1/2 miles that separated him from the Triple Crown. He took control early, setting a reasonable pace for the distance. As the race progressed, no one else went to the lead. It was reminisicent of American Pharoah's Belmont Stakes in 2015, when he set the pace early and moved forward for the win. In the far turn, Justify continued to show the way. That did not change in the stretch. Justify continued on, and his rivals tried to catch him as the Belmont reached its closing stages. None of them could, and the lightly raced colt defied the odds one more time by winning the Belmont and the Triple Crown, becoming the second undefeated horse to sweep the Classics after Seattle Slew.

It turned out Justify would share something in common with another Triple Crown winner. Count Fleet was retired after winning the 1943 Belmont, and Justify would also have his finale in the Test of the Champion. Although his career was brief, Justify made history in the span of only a few months. He did what only one horse had done in over 130 years, and he followed that up with an accomplishment only twelve others were able to experience.

While Justify's times were not fast, he showcased elements of his versatility during the Triple Crown races. First, he won at three different distances at three different tracks. Second, two of those races came on off tracks, and one of them saw him battling in the fog. There was talent, and there was bravery. Justify did not back down from a challenge, and he faced a few of them. It could be said that his Triple Crown run was actually inspiring. He did a lot in those five weeks, and did so with history against him.

Justify proved anything can happen not just in racing, but in life. When studying those races, future fans of the sport will see that Justify was indeed a special horse. He may have been favored in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, but he was also the underdog. Along with becoming a two-time Eclipse Award champion (Top Three Year Old Male and Horse of the Year), Justify also became the people's champion. He showed determination and tenacity, and it helped him reach the top of his sport.

That is just like people trying to achieve their goals in everyday life. Those traits Justify demonstrated can help anybody reach what they strive for.

In that sense, scores of people can relate to him. Justify is, in a sense, a horse with everyman traits, and that makes him easy to admire.

Talented. Brave. Underdog. Champion. Justify is indeed all of those, as well as a living legend.

Entry added March 21, 2019. AF