Justify etched himself into thoroughbred horseracing’s book of immortality Saturday, capturing the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes in breathtaking, frontrunning fashion under jockey Mike Smith to become the 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years.
“He’s so gifted; he was sent from heaven,” said the 52-year-old Smith, who urged Justify to the front from post No. 1, fended off early challengers Restoring Hope and Bravazo, kept a charging Vino Rosso in his rearview mirror around the turn, and held off late-firing longshot Gronkowski to win by 1 ¾ lengths before a thunderous crowd of 90,000-plus.
“The great ones, they just find another gear,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled American Pharoah in 2015 to end a 37-year-old Triple Crown drought. “Justify was showing me the same signs as American Pharoah; he showed me that same brilliance,” he added. “He’s a superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He's just that kind of horse.”
Sent off as the 3-5 favorite, Justify, making his sixth career start in only 111 days, completed the 1 ½ miles “Test of the Champion” in 2:28.18 over a fast track — unlike his muddy victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness — and joined Seattle Slew (1977) as the only undefeated Triple Crown winners. On the first Saturday in May, Justify became the first horse since 1882 to take the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.
“American Pharoah will always be my first love, but I wanted to see that horse [Justify], his name up there with those greats,” said Baffert, who joined Jim Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935) as the only trainers with two Triple Crown winners. “I knew this horse was doing well,” he added. “We had him ready, but … to train a horse like that, he's just a magnificent animal.”
Galloping through fractions of 23.37 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.11 for the half, 1:13.21 for three quarters and 1:38.09 for the mile, Justify responded each time Smith asked for more. “The first quarter was just a little bit quick, but then after that he settled down and got into a great rhythm, and I just kept a leg on each side at that point and my mind in the middle, and when I asked him, he dug in,” said Smith, who became the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown.
Justify, whose maiden win came Feb. 18 at Santa Anita, paid $3.60 to win. Twenty-four-to-1 shot Gronkowski, named for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and making his North American debut, overcame a disastrous start to make things interesting in the final eighth but had to settle for second. Hofburg worked past Vino Rosso in the final strides to grab third.
“I’m really proud of my horse,” said Chad Brown, trainer of Gronkowski. “Even though we warmed the horse up well in the post parade, and we kept the blinkers on, he just didn’t break at all.
“My thought turning for home was that he [Gronkowski] had a shot to get him if Justify was vulnerable at a mile and a half,” Brown added. “Even though the fractions were soft for a horse of his caliber, he still had to go a mile and a half. He showed up and earned it.”
Finishing fifth through 10th, respectively, were Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
“You can’t doubt him [Justify] now, there’s no way,” said Bill Mott, trainer of Hofburg. “You’ve got to give him credit. He did it right up on the pace, and everybody had an opportunity to take their shot.”
Owned in partnership by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, Justify earned $800,000 and boosted his career bankroll to $3,798,000. He defeated a combined 35 rivals in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
“It’s amazing,” Baffert said. “It’s a privilege to have a horse like this.”