The strapping chestnut colt can complete maybe the rarest feat in sports in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, joining the immortal group of horses to sweep America’s three most famous races.
For a century it’s been regarded as perhaps the most difficult task in American sports: winning three prestigious races at three different distances in three different states over a five-week span against the highest-caliber competition in the game, a feat that requires uncommon speed for the first two legs, unflagging stamina in the last and tactical balance in all three. So demanding, in fact, that only a dozen in history have managed to pull it off.
On Saturday, a strapping, powerful chestnut colt named Justify, the unbeaten Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, will attempt to become the 13th in that immortal club in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, completing a sweep of America’s three most famous races at Belmont Park, the venerable race course just outside New York city limits.
The three-year-old son of Scat Daddy, trained by Bob Baffert and rode by Mike Smith, didn’t compete in a race until the third week of February, but has won all five starts of his compressed career and will go off as a better than even money favorite to become only the second undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown after the great Seattle Slew – and the only one of the entire lot to have not raced as a juvenile.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Baffert said Wednesday. “It’s been quick. He’s handled everything thrown at him without losing his composure. A lot of horses get nervous, hot. He thrives on this. Not only is he a great athlete, but he has a great mind. In the Derby, the Preakness, he was in the paddock like he’d handled it all before.
“He’s a very fearless type of horse.”
Thoroughbred racing commands only a fraction of the attention in the United States as it did 99 years ago, when Sir Barton became the first horse to win the iconic treble. And the run-up to Saturday’s bid has been notably subdued compared to three years ago when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in style, breaking away from the pack down the homestretch amid a deafening crescendo of nearly 100,000 delirious spectators to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Then, folks were simply looking for proof it could still be done, same as when Secretariat came along and ended a quarter-century skid in 1973.
But not unlike boxing, another ancient sport whose protracted retreat toward the margins of American life belies the grip on the national consciousness it once held, the biggest events are still capable of crossing over into the mainstream and overtaking the conversation if only for a day. Horse racing might not be on SportsCenter all the time, but America has not forgotten the Triple Crown.
“The great thing about the Belmont when there’s a Triple Crown at stake is I think it brings our sport to the very highest level and becomes the most exciting sports event arguably that there is,” said Todd Pletcher, the decorated trainer who will try for a fourth career Belmont victory with Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. “It puts us right on par with the Super Bowl and the World Series. I mean, the Belmont on its own is a tremendous event and a tremendous race, but when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, to me there’s nothing like it.”
Justify, whose extraordinary natural ability only benefits from a Hall of Fame trainer and a Hall of Fame jockey, was regarded as a freakish talent but an untested one until last month, when he became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year-old, seeing off a crowded field of 19 challengers in the slop at Churchill Downs.
He’s now widely regarded as the best of his three-year-old class and will be a heavy favorite in Saturday’s race on merit. But it won’t be easy.
The colt was nearly pipped at the wire a fortnight ago in the Preakness by a fast-closing Bravazo, hanging on in a surreal fog to win by a half-length over a horse that he’d beaten by eight lengths in the Derby on a similarly messy course, raising questions over whether the cumulative toll of of the campaign – the Belmont will be his sixth race in 16 weeks – might finally be wearing him down. Tenfold was right there with them, coming in third only three-quarters of a length back. Both of those talented rivals are back for another crack in the Belmont and will be joined by seven others who bypassed Pimlico and enter well-rested for spoiler bids, none gamer than second-choice Hofburg, another lightly raced standout who was done in by unlucky traffic in a seventh-place finish in the Derby.
A unenviable draw further complicates matters. Justify will run from the rail after he was saddled with the dreaded No1 post on Tuesday afternoon, which means he will likely be made to go to the lead under Smith from the gate, though a lack of bona fide pace players in the field should mitigate the disadvantage. The size of the field is also of no small concern: Should Justify win on Saturday, the colt will set a record for most opponents beaten with the Triple Crown on the line.
Then there’s the Belmont itself, that punishing battle of attrition known as the Test of a Champion. The longest and most demanding of the Triple Crown legs is staged at a grueling distance of one-and-a-half-miles on an deep and unforgiving dirt surface composed of sand, clay and silt. Thirty-five times a horse has entered the gate at the Big Sandy with a chance to complete the sweep and two-thirds of them have failed, including 12 of the last 13. It will be the only time Justify ever races that far. We won’t know until we know.
Baffert, 65, is no stranger to Triple Crown heartbreak, coming tantalizing close only to be thwarted at the final hurdle with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998, in a photo finish) and War Emblem (2002), before finally breaking through with the magnificent American Pharoah. Should he make it two in four years with Justify, the silver-haired Californian will become only second trainer to saddle more than one Triple Crown winner after ‘Sunny’ Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained Gallant Fox and Omaha between the wars.
Justify, who is based at Churchill Downs, arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday afternoon after shipping on a special transport plane from Louisville International Airport to Long Island’s MacArthur Airport in the morning. He looked right at home in a crisp Thursday morning gallop on the sprawling oval and betrayed no sign he’s not up for the challenge afoot.
“He’s become a rock star like Pharoah,” Baffert said. “Let’s see if he can do it.”
As the race draws closer the pressure shifts from the trainer to the 52-year-old Smith, the New Mexico native who became the oldest jockey to win the Preakness in the race’s 143-year history and is intimately familiar with Belmont’s expansive oval from more than a decade on the New York circuit.
“A good rider like him, they just keep a good horse from getting beat,” Baffert said. “His job is to keep him out of trouble, ride his horse. He’s going to have to make some split-second decisions.”
If all goes to plan, Justify will join an exclusive group that includes Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015).
But there’s a lot more heartbreak than glory in horse racing, as the saying goes, and co-owner Elliott Walden is bound to a more pragmatic tack.
“Those things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” he said. “If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen. And if not, it just won’t.”