Mike Smith salutes the Belmont Stakes Day crowd aboard Justify

Mike Smith salutes the Belmont Stakes Day crowd aboard Justify

Rick Samuels

Triple Crown Winner Justify's Legacy Still Taking Shape

Justify's quick road to success could shape training approaches.

In registering a 1 3/4-length victory June 9 in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) to complete a sweep of the classics, Justify joined the short list of racing's most elite champions in becoming the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner.

He also ranks as just the second 3-year-old to capture the Triple Crown with an undefeated record, joining Seattle Slew in 1977 and placing him in the rarest of company.

"When he won his second out, I was thinking, I think this is a Derby horse," said Bob Baffert, who trains Justify for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners. "He could be a Triple Crown horse, man, I'll get another shot. But he showed us that raw talent was there. Mike (Smith) rode him, and then (he won the) Santa Anita Derby (G1), and, I'm telling you, the raw talent is there. He just came on there, and he broke every curse there was. It was meant to be. You know, I was meant to get this horse, they were meant to buy him. Everything to me is meant to be.

"We had him ready, but to train a horse like that, he's just a magnificent animal. I'm just glad that I got a chance to train a horse like that."

Those achievements shout out greatness, but it's far too early to pass final judgment on Justify's talents. Time will tell if the 3-year-old class of 2018 is as strong as it seemed to be prior to the first Saturday in May or if Justify capitalized on a weak crop. Without question, Seattle Slew's 1977 foes did not include anyone worthy of inclusion in the same sentence as Sham and Alydar, the arch-rivals of Triple Crown winner Secretariat and Affirmed, respectively, and the respect for him did not truly blossom until he was 4.  

In looking over the list of the five most recent Triple Crown winners, all of them either beat older foes in a huge showdown at 3 or were champions at 4, confirming every bit of the greatness bestowed on them in the Belmont Stakes.

What will make this summer and fall such a special time is the anticipation and excitement of finding out if Justify can mirror the Baffert-trained American Pharoah  and win the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) and join him as the second Grand Slam winner.

And if for some reason Justify does not race again or make it to the Breeders' Cup, it will be left to horses like Good Magic, Audible, Bravazo, Tenfold, Gronkowski, Hofburg, and Vino Rosso to speak on behalf of the quality of the horses Justify defeated.

In American Pharoah's case, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic and having Belmont Stakes runner-up Frosted  win the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) by 14 1/4 lengths and the grade 1 Whitney Stakes (G1) at 4 only enhanced the aura of the Triple Crown sweep by the Zayat Stables superstar.

Until then, we can enjoy the hope of more appearances by Justify and look ahead to next year, knowing the Triple Crown landscape has been changed for the better since, let's say 2014.

Back in 2014, after the Triple Crown bid of California Chrome  was thwarted in the Belmont, there was an outcry that the series needed to be changed. With a 36-year Triple Crown drought as their evidence, critics said the challenge was too great for horses of this generation. American Pharoah silenced that talk in 2015. Yet after six different horses won the next six Triple Crown races in 2016 and 2017, you wondered how long it would be before American Pharoah was painted as a mirage and the clamor for change started anew.

Now, thanks to Justify, that notion of altering the series can be put to rest. A mark of 2-for-40 (horses to sweep Triple Crown, 1979-2018) is not great but it speaks well for the challenge and two Triple Crowns in three years (or four runnings) is indisputable proof that the modern day horse can meet the test of three classic races in five weeks. It just takes a highly superior horse to do it, like Justify and American Pharoah.

You might also see trainers prepare their young horses differently for the Triple Crown. In the Derby, Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the run for the roses without the benefit of a race at 2. The infamous "Curse of Apollo" was rather logical since it meant a horse had a foundation at 2 that was built upon at 3, and a trainer did not have to play catch-up and jam training and seasoning into an extremely tight time frame in which one setback could end any hopes of running in the Derby.

It certainly did not seem like it was a mere coincidence that all of the past five Triple Crown winners before Justify were 2-year-old champions.

All of that changed on Saturday. In what might rank as the best work of a legendary, Hall of Fame career, Baffert took a horse who made his debut on Feb. 18 and not only won the Derby with him, but promptly added victories in the Preakness and the Belmont.

To break that down, from the moment when Justify broke from the starting gate at 1:05 p.m. PT on Feb. 18 in the second race at Santa Anita Park until about 6:53 p.m. EDT Saturday when he crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes, Justify went from an unraced maiden to a Triple Crown winner. Nothing even remotely close to that has happened since 1919 when Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner.

It's a reflection of the supreme talents Baffert possesses as a trainer and the value of the expert staff he has behind him, led by his right-hand man for about the past 20 years, assistant trainer Jim Barnes. It also underscores why Baffert and James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons are the only trainers with two Triple Crown winners on their resume.

Whether other trainers will follow Baffert's lead and not give up on the Derby with their late bloomers, even if their horse does not make its first start until February, remains to be seen. But at the moment, it can happen.

And so, while we can look back on the spring of 2018 and savor a Triple Crown, we can also look forward to 2019 when we can say a Triple Crown is a very real possibility and debuting at 3 is not grounds for an automatic toss-out in the Derby or a Triple Crown sweep.

My how things have changed in just four years.