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, the 3-year-old thundered to victory in the Belmont Stakes to claim a place in history as the sport’s 13th Triple Crown champion.
Before Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, which Justify won by 1¾ lengths over surprise second-place finisher Gronkowski, the massive chestnut colt with the white blaze had won the Kentucky Derby by a 2½ -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 crowd of 90,327, leading wire-to-wire to cover the 1½ -mile distance in 2:28.18 with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard. And he did it in the fading moments of a sun-splashed 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.
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 1,100-pound 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 1½ -length lead at the quarter pole and never let a challenger get closer than that