Since the afternoon of Feb. 18, when a big red colt in trainer Bob Baffert's barn showed up on the scene, those who know better have been in an all-out battle to keep their minds in check.
The last thing any learned horseman wants to do is get ahead of himself where talented runners are concerned, because the minute you start dreaming of what might be, reality can bring you back to earth. But the more Justify kept doing nothing wrong, the more he kept making the improbable look routine, the more those helping develop his now-historic level of talent had their mental fortitude tested.
"It's hard. It's so hard. I literally had to be like, 'Stop it!' and make my mind get off of it, because you can't help but dream, right?" said 52-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith of his brilliant chestnut-colored partner. "When I rode him the second time, I knew we had a big shot in the Kentucky Derby. And I thought if I could pull that off, and then after we pulled the Preakness off … I tried not to let it creep into my head. I was trying to keep it one race a time."
After Justify's 1 1/2-mile run around the Belmont Park oval June 9 in the 150th edition of the final leg of the Triple Crown, everything his team and his fans have been trying to bottle up was allowed to spill forth. And the morning following his victory in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1)—an effort that made the unbeaten son of Scat Daddy just the 13th horse to sweep the American classics—an overwhelming sense of pride and satisfaction overtook practically everyone connected to racing's latest transcendent star.
Looking every bit the conqueror he is, Justify showed off his remarkably good flesh outside Belmont's Barn 1 June 10, taking one calm turn after another before the pack of media and onlookers who wanted a fresh glance at Baffert's second Triple Crown winner.
The superior mechanics of his stride and effortless nature of his tactical speed are just a couple of the intangibles that allowed Justify to spot his classmates several lengths of progress, only to reel them in handily in a career that spanned only 112 days. Despite breaking his maiden at first asking Feb. 18, winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) three starts later, then joining the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and former Baffert trainee American Pharoah as racing demigods in just his sixth career start, the 16.3-hand colt never appeared to lose an ounce of condition.
With his trainer on the end of the lead shank, and rapid-fire cameras clicking, Justify's poised demeanor graciously allowed the masses to express their gratitude.
"He looks pretty bright. He looks like he's ready to go again," Baffert said. "He's just an unbelievable horse, and we're so proud of him. We thought he was that kind of horse, but they have to prove it. And he proved it.
"Last night when we got back to the barn, he was real rambunctious. And then people were coming up to him, and he finally just gave up and was like, 'All right' and put his head down. He finally gave in to everybody."
Baffert has quipped that Justify basically ran himself into shape the last few months, pointing to his half-length victory in the Preakness Stakes (G1) as the outing that—far from taking much out of the colt—got him right for the 12-furlong test he aced Saturday.
And in joining "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons as the only conditioners to saddle two Triple Crown winners, Baffert was the architect of a developmental job that has some of his brethren hailing his ability to not just identify exceptional talent, but bring it along in a fashion that broke the rules on how fast a horse can progress.
"Unbelievable. Just an incredible horse and an amazing training job by Bob Baffert and all the people who contributed in developing that horse," said two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, who chased Justify with juvenile champion Good Magic in the Derby and Preakness and saddled longshot Gronkowski to a runner-up effort in the Belmont. "It's one of the greatest feats ever in the history of horse racing, and we got a close-up look at it with two of our horses."
Baffert paraded Justify for a segment to appear on NBC's "Nightly News" Sunday, and then, similar to the meet-and-greet he did with American Pharoah three years ago, took his burnished charge past the line of photographers and writers so they took could lay hands on the boy wonder.
"I know where he ranks with my top five horses I've ever trained," said Baffert, who added Justify will ship back to Churchill Downs June 11 and stay there for about a week, likely to be feted as part of the track's June 16 Stephen Foster Handicap (G1) card. "There are a couple really good ones that just went down to No. 6."
The question of how and whether Justify would get a chance to build on his résumé was among those his connections fielded Sunday, with WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden saying the ownership group of WinStar, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners will "take a deep breath" before figuring out a next step.
"(Bob) will get Justify right, and then we'll make a plan," Walden said. "We're looking forward to sharing him more. He's become a household name, and I'm looking forward to his next race as much as (everyone else)."
After months of trying to keep a lid on expectations, they can afford to get ahead of themselves now. Such is the luxury of having an athlete who keeps moving the needle off the charts in terms of his capabilities.
"Opinions die and facts live forever," Baffert said. "That's what the Triple Crown is all about."