Make no mistake, everything about what Justify has done, what he is trying to do, and the company he aims to keep is the definition of rare. And you only have to go back five weeks to find a heightened level of wonderment over the fact his talent is so singular.
Heading into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), there were 136 years' worth of reasons why a horse who didn't debut until February would hit some kind of wall running 10 furlongs on the first Saturday in May. After the son of Scat Daddy dispelled that notion, he continued to shove the supposed barriers of his lack of experience aside with a Preakness Stakes (G1) victory in a foggy mudslinger with the reigning juvenile champion. He heads to the 150th edition of the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park with a chance to walk through doors that, until three years ago, some believed were rusted shut for good.
Because the memories of American Pharoah busting through the velvet rope in the 2015 Belmont Stakes (G1) are still vivid and the emotions still raw from witnessing his crowning as the 12th horse to sweep the American classics, some of the edge has been taken off Justify's attempt at the historic trio. Throngs still track his every stride, but when a craving that gnawed at the industry for 37 years following Affirmed's achievement in 1978 finally gets satiated, it's understandable to want to digest before being able to fully appreciate another rich course.
If the buzz seems a bit lessened from the fever that tracked American Pharoah's quest—and California Chrome before him, and I'll Have Another before him, and Big Brown before him—it is not because Justify hasn't done his part to provide a compelling storyline. He has packed what for many would be a career's worth of achievements into just more than three months. He is on the brink of joining Seattle Slew on the podium as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners.
Had he not come along relatively quickly after the improbable became possible, the recognition for his own trailblazing heading into the June 9 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets might already be in its own echelon.
"I think a lot of people are not totally on board with this horse," said Bob Baffert, who has carried a greater ease in recent weeks as he attempts to join "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons as the only trainers of two Triple Crown winners. "He came around so quickly, and now he's won five in a row. Everyone was expecting him to blow away the field in the Preakness, and he hangs on. I don't know what it is about it. But I know one thing: It's just as exciting—and he's not slowing down."
Here's another thing Baffert and the rest of his brethren know—the Triple Crown should never be taken for granted. Not when the path of near misses is scattered with all-timers like Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence. Especially not when the latest subject in line wasn't even putting in official workouts until October.
While Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and American Pharoah were all proven, brilliant 2-year-olds, Justify has had to accelerate his progress after not racing as a juvenile. After he broke his maiden Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park, there was a small window of time to get his foundation formed well enough to handle the rigors of the Triple Crown. Not only did he hit every mark, he did so in appropriate fashion—an easy optional-claiming allowance win second time out that set him up for his April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1) victory, which in turn allowed him to come to Churchill Downs on May 5 with favored status.
Though Justify's half-length margin of victory over Bravazo in the Preakness was seen by some as a sign that five races in 91 days was catching up to him, Baffert has drawn the parallel between that effort and American Pharoah's workmanlike Kentucky Derby. For the latter, the Derby was the race Baffert said got him fit for the rest of his Triple Crown run.
Those who have tracked Justify in his training since the Preakness—most notably his four-furlong breeze May 29 in a bullet :46 4/5 at Churchill Downs—would concur his trainer is not off base in thinking he is coming into the Belmont with a better horse than the one he had at the start of this journey five weeks ago.
"He's got so many things going for him. He's a big, strong, well-bred horse that is trained by an outstanding trainer that has outstanding staff," said trainer Chad Brown, who took on Justify in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with champion Good Magic and will attempt to thwart him Saturday with European stakes winner Gronkowski. "And he's proven he can overcome multiple situations—many races in a short period of time, racing on off tracks or dry tracks.
"For a big horse, he's fast and will take the race right to you, right away. He'll get ahead of you early and out-finish you to that point. If he goes on to victory, I'll be the first in line to tip my hat, because he really, really earned it."
Tactically, Justify's style appears tailor-made for his 1 1/2-mile test. He has the early speed to get away from his inside post in good order, and if another rival wants to dictate the fractions, he has shown he can relax off a target and find new gears with every switch of his leads.
With no obvious holes to be exploited, the hope among his challengers is that their horses are peaking enough to take advantage should circumstances rise up to humble Justify.
"We know we're up against it. We know we're up against a very good horse, and we do not take the challenge lightly," said trainer Bill Mott, who is set to saddle morning-line second choice Hofburg in the Belmont. "But we feel good about our chances. If we have to go up against a potential champion, I'm pleased to be able to try it with Hofburg."
If the biggest problem Justify will have faced at Belmont Park is eating dirt from American Pharoah's footsteps, then that means something special took place.
"He just seems like he's still improving. He looks like he's ready to run," Baffert said. "The racing part is out of our control. I couldn't be happier with the way he looks. He looks no different than the way American Pharoah did coming in here.
"I visited American Pharoah (at Ashford Stud), and he got me so emotional. I asked him if it (was) OK if another horse came around and broke his record, and he didn't seem to mind."