Horse Jus­ti­fies the hype

Fa­vorite leads from the start, adding the win to vic­to­ries in Derby, Preak­ness

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim Wilkin

Jus­tify, rid­den by Mike Smith, breaks from the gate in the 150th Bel­mont Stakes on Satur­day at Bel­mont Park. The 4-5 fa­vorite was able to con­trol the pace of the race from the front and win the 11/2-mile marathon by 13/4 lengths, be­com­ing the 13th win­ner of the Triple Crown. Win­ning trainer Bob Baf­fert also had the pre­vi­ous horse to achieve it, Amer­i­can Pharoah in 2015.

When he looked down at his phone shortly af­ter the 150th run­ning of the Bel­mont Stakes on Satur­day night, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baf­fert saw it had blown up. His cell was out of con­trol as 350 text mes­sages had bom­barded his per­sonal de­vice.

Just a sam­pling. Olympic swim­mer Michael Phelps sent his re­gards; so did Mr. Oc­to­ber, for­mer Yan­kee slug­ger Reg­gie Jack­son.

That’s what hap­pens when you do some­thing big. And Satur­day, Baf­fert did some­thing big.

Ac­tu­ally, his horse, Jus­tify did.

For the sec­ond time in four years, Baf­fert and one of his horses stood tall as Jus­tify had ev­ery­thing his own way and won the Grade I, $1.5 mil­lion Bel­mont in front of 90,327 fans at Bel­mont Park.

The vic­tory ce­mented Jus­tify’s place in his­tory as he be­came the 13th horse in the his­tory of the sport to sweep the Triple Crown. He won the 11/2-mile Bel­mont go­ing gate to wire and added that to his prior vic­to­ries in the Ken­tucky Derby and Preak­ness.

Jus­tify won the race by 13/4 lengths and be­came just the sec­ond horse ever to win the Triple Crown while be­ing un­beaten. Jus­tify has won all six of his starts — all of them in a span of 112 days this year — by a com­bined 231/4

lengths. The only other horse to win the Crown with­out a loss was Seat­tle Slew, who was 9-0 af­ter his Bel­mont win in 1977.

Jus­tify is owned by Wins­tar Farm, the China Horse Club, Head of Plains Part­ners and Starlight Rac­ing. Don Lucarelli, for­merly of Duanes­burg, is a manag­ing part­ner of Starlight. He was not at the race Satur­day.

The 65-year-old Baf­fert, who also won the Triple Crown in 2015 with Amer­i­can Pharoah, is just the sec­ond trainer in his­tory to win it twice. Sunny Jim Fitzsim­mons did it in 1930 with Gal­lant Fox and Omaha in 1935.

“It’s a priv­i­lege to have a horse like this,” said Baf­fert, who said the per­sonal ac­co­lades were not high on his list. “I wanted to see that horse, his name, up there with the greats. If they’re great, they’re go­ing to win the Triple Crown.”

Baf­fert came into the Bel­mont with a quiet, calm con­fi­dence. De­spite the heavy work­load he put on Jus­tify, he thought the big chest­nut son of Scat Daddy was up to the task. And he was right.

Rid­den by Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, Jus­tify, the 4-5 fa­vorite in the field of 10, blasted out of the start­ing gate and went straight to the lead. And no one could catch him.

“He prob­a­bly broke bet­ter than he has out of the other two (Ken­tucky Derby, Preak­ness), to be hon­est with you,” Smith said. “He left there very, very good, which was very im­por­tant.”

For a time, the only com­pe­ti­tion Jus­tify had was his sta­ble­mate, 37-1 long shot Restor­ing Hope, who stayed with Jus­tify for a half-mile, but also stayed well to his out­side. Mostly, that horse and his rider Florent Ger­oux, kept out of Jus­tify’s way.

Af­ter a solid first quar­ter-mile in 23.37 sec­onds, the pace lagged when Jus­tify com­pleted the six fur­longs in a pokey 1:13.21 and the mile in 1:38.09. Vino Rosso, rid­den by

John Ve­lazquez, took a run at Jus­tify at the quar­ter pole. It was a move made ear­lier by Ve­lazquez, but he fig­ured he had to if he was go­ing to have any hope of win­ning.

“I had to take a chance,” Ve­lazquez said in the jockey’s room. “Mov­ing early cost me sec­ond, but I ride to win.”

Hof burg, the 5-1 sec­ond choice in the wa­ger­ing, also made a move on the out­side at the top of the stretch and was six wide. He was never go­ing to catch Jus­tify ei­ther.

“There was just no pace,” Hof­burg’s trainer Bill Mott said. “No­body put any pres­sure (on Jus­tify) and kind of walked the dog around there. They were go­ing slow and ( jockey Irad Or­tiz Jr.) said he didn’t want to make some crazy move down the back­side to go and join him, which prob­a­bly wouldn’t have made any sense.”

The only horse that had a chance at the end was the un­like­li­est. Gronkowski, named af­ter New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots tight end

Rob Gronkowski, looked like he had a chance in­side the eighth pole, but Jus­tify kept on go­ing. He beat 24-1 Gronkowski by 13/4 lengths, who was

13/4 lengths in front of Hof­burg.

Hof burg was a neck in front of Vino Rosso.

The fi­nal time was 2:28.19. Jus­tify paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80

When Baf­fert won the Triple Crown in 2015, it ended a 37-year drought since Af­firmed last did it in 1978. Baf­fert was not go­ing to get into com­par­ing the two horses. At least not on this day.

“They’re are two dif­fer­ent types,” Baf­fert said. “It’s like com­par­ing your kids, which one is faster?”

Skip Dick­stein / Times Union

Skip Dick­stein / Times Union

Jus­tify, with jockey Mike Smith aboard, wins the Bel­mont Stakes and com­pletes the Triple Crown at Bel­mont Park in El­mont on Satur­day. In sweep­ing the big three races for 3-year-olds, Smith, 52, be­comes the old­est jockey to win the Triple Crown and Jus­tify the 13th horse.


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