Wire-to-wire

Jus­tify wins Bel­mont for Triple Crown

Sunday Star - - FRONT PAGE - BEL­MONT STAKES

— Jus­tify de­fied all the odds on his way to achiev­ing Triple Crown im­mor­tal­ity.

The late bloomer won the Bel­mont Stakes by 1¾ lengths on Satur­day, giv­ing the sport its 13th Triple Crown cham­pion and sec­ond in four years.

Jus­tify be­gan his rac­ing ca­reer on Feb. 18, a scant 77 days be­fore the Ken­tucky Derby. He won his first three races by a com­bined 19 lengths, mak­ing trainer Bob Baf­fert a be­liever.

The chest­nut colt burst onto the na­tional scene with a 2½-length vic­tory on a sloppy track in the Derby. Two weeks later, he sur­vived a chal­lenge in the Preak­ness, win­ning by a half-length, again in the slop to set up a Triple Crown try.

On an 80-de­gree day at Bel­mont Park, Jus­tify was a cool cus­tomer.

He didn’t flinch when greeted by a roar­ing crowd as he walked onto the track. He stood so qui­etly in the start­ing gate that jockey Mike Smith won­dered if he’d re­spond when it sprang open. Did he ever. Jus­tify led all the way in achiev­ing one of the sports world’s tough­est feats 45 years to the day that Sec­re­tariat won the Bel­mont by a record 31 lengths.

Jus­tify ac­com­plished a lot in a very short time.

At 6-0, he’s the sec­ond un­de­feated Triple Crown win­ner; he’s the first to sweep the Ken­tucky Derby, Preak­ness and Bel­mont with­out rac­ing at age 2; and he’s the only horse to beat nine ri­vals in the Bel­mont with a Triple try on the line.

His hu­man han­dlers also made his­tory.

Baf­fert be­came the sec­ond trainer to win the Triple Crown twice. He did so with Amer­i­can Pharoah in 2015, end­ing a 37-year drought. James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsim­mons guided Gal­lant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.

“It never gets old,” Baf­fert said. “Amer­i­can Pharoah, he’ll al­ways be my first love.”

At 52, Smith be­came the old­est jockey to win the Triple Crown.

Jus­tify’s vic­tory gives rac­ing its sec­ond Triple Crown win­ner of the decade. The last time there were two Triple Crown cham­pi­ons in the same decade was the 1970s, which pro­duced Sec­re­tariat, Seat­tle Slew and Af­firmed.

The pow­er­ful colt with the blaze run­ning the length of his face showed no signs that the rig­ors of run­ning a com­pressed sched­ule had got­ten to him.

On a fast, dry track, Jus­tify was just as good in his third race in five weeks at his third dif­fer­ent track.

Sent off as the 4-5 fa­vorite, Jus­tify ran the long­est race of the se­ries in 2:28.18 and paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80.

“This horse ran a tremen­dous race, he’s so gifted,” Smith said. “He’s sent from heaven. I tell you, it’s just amaz­ing. I can’t de­scribe the emo­tions that’s go­ing through my body right now.”

Baf­fert had fret­ted af­ter Jus­tify drew the No. 1 post, a spot he de­tests for his horses. But Smith turned it into an ad­van­tage, gun­ning Jus­tify to the lead and de­fy­ing any horse to chal­lenge.

Restor­ing Hope, also trained by Baf­fert, ran in­ter­fer­ence for the cham­pion while trav­el­ing sec­ond and de­ter­ring any threats by forc­ing them to go ex­tremely wide. No­body did.

Smith got the big colt into a re­laxed rhythm un­der a mod­er­ate pace head­ing into the back­stretch, and he had an easy trip from there.

There were mild bids turn­ing for home. Vino Rosso made the most se­ri­ous move to get within a length but never threat­ened. Jus­tify pulled away down the 1,097-yard stretch in front of a grand­stand packed with scream­ing fans with only 24-1 shot Gronkowski pick­ing up the chase down the lane.

Gronkowski, named for and partly owned by New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots tight end Rob Gronkowski, re­turned $13.80 and $7.

Hof­burg paid $3.70 to show.

Vino Rosso fin­ished fourth, fol­lowed by Ten­fold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restor­ing Hope, Blended Ci­ti­zen and No­ble Indy.

AP PHOTO

Jus­tify, with jockey Mike Smith up, breaks out of the start­ing gate dur­ing the 150th run­ning of the Bel­mont Stakes horse race Satur­day in El­mont, N.Y.

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