Justify roared to an imperious victory in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday afternoon, becoming the 13th horse to win thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown and only the second in 40 years.
The strapping chestnut colt, trained by Bob Baffert and rode by Mike Smith, broke well out of the gate and went right to the front, leaing the one-and-a-half-mile race from wire to wire and pulling away down the homestretch in a finishing time of 2:28.18 amid a deafening crescendo from the crowd of more than 90,000 at Belmont Park, the venerable race course just outside New York city limits.
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” said the 52-year-old Smith. “He’s so gifted. He’s sent from heaven. He’s just amazing. I can’t describe the emotions going through my body right now.
“Did you see him standing in the gate? He’s standing so still, I actually thought he’s not going to break today. I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Riodoso, New Mexico.”
Gronkowski finished second, one-and-three-quarters lengths back. Hofburg was third and Vino Rosso fourth, followed by Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
Justify went off as a prohibitive 3-5 favorite and paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80, running the final quarter-mile in 25.28 seconds and becoming the first ever Triple Crown winner to defeat nine opponents at Belmont. (None of the previous dozen had beaten more than seven.)
The three-year-old son of Scat Daddy and Stage Magic, who is owned by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, didn’t compete in a race until the third week of February, but has now won every start of his compressed career, a total of six in 111 days with five of them going two turns, and becomes 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 two-year-old.
After making his debut at Santa Anita and winning an optional-claiming race the next month, Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a juvenile, then hung on in a surreal fog to win by a half-length in the Preakness three weeks ago.
Now the prodigious colt enters a storied roll of equine athletes to sweep America’s three most celebrated races, joining 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).
Baffert, 65, for so long intimately familiar with Triple Crown heartbreak after he was thwarted in the Belmont with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998, in a photo finish) and War Emblem (2002), has now won the sport’s ultimate price twice in four years.
“It’s just amazing,” Baffert said. “It never gets old. American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love, (but) Mike Smith, he deserves something like this.”
The silver-haired Californian becomes only the second trainer to saddle more than one Triple Crown winner after ‘Sunny’ Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained Gallant Fox and Omaha between the wars.