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-year-old 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 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.
Justify’s dominance in a 10-horse 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, BBaffert, 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.
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 muscular 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 1¼ -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 late-developing 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 three-month 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.
MORE ON BOB BAFFERT
Bob Baffert is widely recognized as one of the most successful trainers in the history of horse racing.
After rising to the top in the Quarter Horse game, Bob decided to become a full time Thoroughbred trainer. And it certainly did not take him long to also reach the pinnacle of his profession in Thoroughbred racing.
Through the years, Bob Baffert has registered numerous major stakes victories, earned a multitude of awards and received accolades galore, all stemming from his drive to succeed and his knack of being able to elicit the very best that an equine athlete has to give. In 2009, that all culminated when he was inducted into Thoroughbred racing’s national Hall of Fame at Saratoga.
Probably nothing speaks louder about Bob Baffert the trainer and Bob Baffert the person than the fact that Mike Pegram and Hal Earnhardt have been in racing with him for such a long time. Those two owners have had a long run with Bob, with their association going all the way back to Bob’s Quarter Horse days. Indeed, Mike Pegram and Hal Earnhardt were responsible for bringing Bob into the Thoroughbred game.
The 2007 Breeders’ Cup was especially meaningful for Bob Baffert in that he was able to win a Breeders’ Cup race for Hal Earnhardt and another Breeders’ Cup race for Mike Pegram.
For Hal Earnhardt and his wife, Patti, the Bob Baffert-trained Indian Blessing posted a 3 1/2-length victory in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
For Mike Pegram and partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Lute won the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by an emphatic 4 3/4 lengths. Midnight Lute also had the distinction of recording the nation’s highest Beyer Speed Figure of 2007 when he earned a 124 for his victory in the Grade I Forego Stakes. He returned a year later to earn back-to-back wins in the Sprint, winning the 2008 edition before again being named champion and retiring to stud.
Bob Baffert’s zest for life and his pure joy of competing and winning at the sport’s highest level have helped make racing a lot fun for Mike Pegram, Hal Earnhardt and such other owners as Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables, Robert and Janice McNair (Stonerside Stable), the late Bob Lewis and his wife, Beverly; the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman (The Thoroughbred Corp.) and the late John Mabee and his wife, Betty (Golden Eagle Farm).
Bob and Beverly Lewis and Bob Baffert struck gold with Silver Charm. An $85,000 purchase, Silver Charm earned $6,944,369 before being retired to stud. Silver Charm’s racing career was highlighted by victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1997 and the rich Dubai World Cup in 1998.
After coming within three-quarters of a length of sweeping the coveted Triple Crown with Silver Charm in 1997 for the Lewises, Bob Baffert came even closer to Triple Crown glory the following year with Mike Pegram’s Real Quiet. Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing the Belmont Stakes by a scant nose.
Bob Baffert thus became the first person in the history of Thoroughbred racing to train Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in back-to-back years.
Real Quiet was purchased for an even smaller sum than Silver Charm. Real Quiet was bought at auction for just $17,000 and earned $3,271,802 on the track.
Bob Baffert has “an uncannily sharp eye for horseflesh,” multiple Eclipse Award-winning writer William Nack pointed out in a story about Baffert in GQ magazine. Nobody has “more manifest gifts as a horse whisperer” than Baffert, Nack added.
For Bob Baffert to nearly win two Triple Crowns as the trainer of Silver Charm and Real Quiet, who were purchased for $102,000 combined, is regarded by Nack as “one of the most startling training feats of the last half century.”
Nack has written that Bob Baffert is “the most charming, engaging, articulate horseman” he has ever known. Nack covered horse racing for Sports Illustrated for many years and is the author of books on Thoroughbred legends Secretariat and Ruffian.
Captain Steve became another success story for the owner-trainer team of Baffert and Pegram. A $70,000 purchase, Captain Steve won the Dubai World Cup in 2001 and earned $6,828,356 during his racing career.
In 2001, Bob Baffert again won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, this time with Point Given.
Point Given won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001. That year he became the first Thoroughbred in history to win four straight races worth $1 million or more (the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell Invitational Handicap and Travers). Point Given also was victorious in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby as a 3-year-old.
War Emblem likewise won two-thirds of the Triple Crown for Bob Baffert in 2002. The colt joined the Baffert barn after winning the 2002 Illinois Derby. War Emblem then won the Kentucky Derby (as a 20-1 longshot), Preakness and Haskell Invitational Handicap.
In 2010, Baffert notched his record-tying fifth Preakness win with Lookin At Lucky, the champion 2-year-old a year prior who redeemed himself in the second jewel of the Triple Crown after troubled trips cost him as the favorite in both the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby his two starts prior.
Baffert got his fourth Kentucky Derby, sixth Preakness, and second Belmont S. wins (tied for second-most Derby wins by a trainer) in 2015 when the brilliant American Pharoah became racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, breaking a drought that had stretched some 37 years.
American Pharoah returned to the races in March of 2015 with a handy win in the Rebel S. (G2) and a thoroughly dominating performance in the Arkansas Derby (G1). After a brilliant workout at Churchill Downs several days before the Derby, American Pharoah won the first jewel of the Triple Crown by a length under Victor Espinoza, who was also aboard for War Emblem’s Derby win. His Preakness win, which came after a deluge soaked the track just minutes before the race, was a seven-length tour de force victory. In the three weeks before the Belmont, American Pharoah continued to train brilliantly and shone brightly on racing’s biggest stage, winning the Belmont by six emphatic lengths in front-running style.
Bob Baffert has been voted the Eclipse Award as the sport’s outstanding trainer four times (1997, 1998, 1999 and 2015).
Triple Crown in-the-money finishes
|The Kentucky Derby||The Preakness Stakes||Belmont Stakes|
- ✝ – won Triple Crown.
Baffert has trained for numerous owners including The Thoroughbred Corporation (Prince Ahmed bin Salman), Golden Eagle Farm (John C. Mabee), the late Bob Lewis and his wife Beverly, Robert and Janice McNair, for whom he trained champions Chilukki and five-time Grade I winner Congaree, and his good friend Mike Pegram, for whom he has trained champions Real Quiet, Silverbulletday, Captain Steve, Midnight Lute, and Lookin At Lucky. In 2014, Baffert teamed with owner Kaleem Shah to win his first Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern. Most recently, Baffert has trained horses forZayat Stables, including Pioneerof The Nile, Zensational, Bodemeister, Paynter, and American Pharoah, and for Juddmonte Farms, most notably Arrogate.
Baffert was inducted into Lone Star Park’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2009, he was nominated and inducted to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. Baffert was elected alongside one of the best fillies he trained, Silverbulletday. Point Given was nominated in 2009, but elected and inducted in 2010.