A Triple Crown

‘HE IS SO GIFTED’ Baf­fert-trained horse dom­i­nates at Bel­mont to se­cure third jewel

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LIZ CLARKE

With Bel­mont win, Jus­tify be­comes 13th to com­plete sweep

el­mont, n.y. — It was Jus­tify’s mo­ment, after all.

In a with­er­ing dis­play of power and dura­bil­ity, the late-bloom­ing colt who didn’t race as a 2-yearold proved Satur­day he couldn’t be worn out as a 3-year-old, thun­der­ing to vic­tory in the Bel­mont Stakes to claim a place in his­tory as the sport’s 13th Triple Crown cham­pion.

After a 37-year drought in which the feat seemed im­pos­si­ble, Jus­tify be­came the sec­ond horse in four years to achieve it, schooled, like 2015 pre­de­ces­sor Amer­i­can Pharoah, by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baf­fert.

Be­fore Satur­day’s Bel­mont Stakes, which Jus­tify won by 13/4 lengths over sur­prise sec­ond­place fin­isher Gronkowski, the mas­sive chest­nut colt with the white blaze had won the Ken­tucky Derby by a 21/2-length mar­gin, be­com­ing the first since Apollo in 1882 to win the clas­sic with­out run­ning as a 2-year-old. Two weeks later, Jus­tify weath­ered tor­ren­tial rain and a blan­ket of fog to win the Preak­ness Stakes, set­ting him­self up for the Triple Crown bid.

All that re­mained was to prove that he had the tough­ness and re­solve to con­quer the long­est, most gru­el­ing leg of the Triple Crown — the Bel­mont Stakes. On Satur­day, Jus­tify did just that be­fore a rap­tur­ous crowd of 90,327, lead­ing wire-to-wire to cover the 11/2-mile dis­tance in 2:28.18 with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard. And he did it in the fad­ing mo­ments of a sun­splashed af­ter­noon with a show of ver­sa­til­ity, mas­ter­ing a dry, fast track that rep­re­sented a far dif­fer­ent test than the slop he had slogged through at Churchill Downs and Pim­lico Race Course.

dom­i­nance in a 10horse field that in­cluded Preak­ness run­ner-up Bravazo and Derby horses Hof­burg (who fin­ished third), Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy moved Baf­fert to tears af­ter­ward as his thoughts turned to his late par­ents and friends he has lost, con­vinced they have some­how been help­ing him these last years.

With Satur­day’s tri­umph, Baf­fert, 65, be­came only the sec­ond trainer to win two Triple Crowns (along with the late James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsim­mons, whose tri­umphs came in 1930 and 1935, with Gal­lant Fox and Omaha, re­spec­tively). He also pulled ahead of long­time friend and ri­val trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 82, to claim a record 15 wins in Triple Crown races (five Ken­tucky Der­bys, seven Preak­ness Stakes and three Bel­mont Stakes). But Baf­fert was far more in­ter­ested af­ter­ward in speak­ing about how fit­ting and sat­is­fy­ing it felt to help Jus­tify place his name along­side those of such cham­pi­ons as Sec­re­tariat, who had claimed his Triple Crown 45 years to the day ear­lier, win­ning the Bel­mont by a record 31 lengths, in a record 2:24.

“The great ones, they just find an­other gear,” Baf­fert said of Jus­tify, who im­proved to 6-0 and joined Seat­tle Slew as the only horse to claim the Triple Crown with an un­beaten record. “He is a mag­nif­i­cent an­i­mal.”

Smith, 52, the old­est jockey to win a Triple Crown, gave all the credit to Jus­tify, not­ing that all he had done was “let a good horse be a good horse.”

“This horse ran a tremen­dous race,” Smith said. “He is so gifted. He is sent from heaven, I tell you.”

Like “Big Red,” as Sec­re­tariat was lov­ingly called, Jus­tify (an even big­ger “Big Red,” at 16.3 hands and 1,380 pounds, com­pared with a typ­i­cal 1,100pound thor­ough­bred), drew the No. 1 post. While it served Sec­re­tariat well, it posed a con­cern for Baf­fert, who wor­ried his mus­cu­lar colt might get pinned against the rail if he didn’t break well.

The first horse to load in the gate, Jus­tify stayed so still and steady as the other nine fol­lowed suit that Smith wor­ried for a mo­ment that he might not break at all. But he shot out with a fury, took a 11/2-length lead at the quar­ter pole and never let a chal­lenger get closer than that.

Jus­tify wore dif­fer­ent silks than he sported in the Derby un­der a pre­vi­ous agree­ment among his four-way own­er­ship group, swap­ping WinS­tar Farm’s white and green for China Horse Club In­ter­na­tional’s red with yel­low stars. Baf­fert had joked ear­lier in the week that, with luck, the jock­eys who had their sights set on beat­ing Jus­tify might get con­fused by the change.

No chance. Be­tween his im­pos­ing size and glis­ten­ing chest­nut coat, Jus­tify is dif­fi­cult to over­look, par­tic­u­larly with his mus­cuJus­tify’s lar hind legs pro­pel­ling him for­ward.

Be­hind him horses diced for po­si­tion. The lightly re­garded Gronkowski, dead last through the first half-mile, fit­tingly played the role of lead dis­rupter. With New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots tight end Rob Gronkowski scream­ing in the stands, his name­sake colt surged to third at the 11/4-mile mark, then un­seated Vino Rosso for sec­ond as the field turned for home.

Smith, with two pre­vi­ous Bel­mont Stakes vic­to­ries to his credit, kept it sim­ple, sens­ing the power in the com­peti­tor be­neath him. He took his hand away to give Jus­tify a pe­ri­odic breath, then gave him a squeeze when he wanted more.

“He lis­tens to you — to every­thing I do,” Smith said af­ter­ward.

And on they thun­dered, with the front-run­ning jockey keep­ing the red-and-yel­low silks clean as the other horses got caked in dirt.

“Once they turned to­ward home, I felt at that point he’d hold any­body off who was com­ing,” Smith said.

In the win­ner’s cir­cle af­ter­ward, the deaf­en­ing cheers and ap­plause weren’t sim­ply a re­ward; they were vin­di­ca­tion.

When skep­tics ques­tioned his au­da­cious am­bi­tions for the lat­ede­vel­op­ing colt, Baf­fert said Jus­tify was tal­ented enough to win the Ken­tucky Derby with min­i­mal ex­pe­ri­ence. And when they ques­tioned Jus­tify’s gru­el­ing work­load — five races in a three­month span, with the Bel­mont his sixth in less than four months — Baf­fert said his horse was tough enough to han­dle it.

On this af­ter­noon, they had each other’s backs. Horse rac­ing’s de­fi­ant ones proved they were hostage to no timetable but their own.

MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Jus­tify stayed out front in the Bel­mont Stakes on Satur­day as his pur­suers were caked with dirt.

LU­CAS JACK­SON/REUTERS

“He is sent from heaven, I tell you,” jockey Mike Smith said of Jus­tify, who won the 150th Bel­mont Stakes to be­come the 13th Triple Crown win­ner. “He’s just amaz­ing.”

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