The scattered remnants of Hurricane Florence hung over central Kentucky on Monday morning, and made Triple Crown winner Justify's long-awaited first steps on Ashford Stud property soggy ones, but that was nothing new for the colt.
The towering chestnut found immortality in the deluge, winning the first two legs of his classic sweep over sloppy tracks, pelting rain, and heavy fog. Moving on to the next phase of his life at Coolmore's Versailles, Ky., farm under a cloudless sky would have almost felt out of character.
Waiting outside the Ashford breeding shed was a living timeline of Justify's past, recent present, and future.
Breeder John Gunther and his daughter Tanya of Glennwood Farm were in attendance, bringing along a group of staff members who worked with the colt in his developmental years. Trainer Bob Baffert, who had spent the last week as an active buyer at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, was admiring his new Coolmore-branded vest advertising his second Triple Crown winner, with the horse's name residing under a trio of crowns. The farm's staff in attendance wore the same vest.
The Scat Daddy colt's trailer made its way onto the property around 10:15 a.m., and the breeders, trainer, and a handful of Ashford staff left the cover of the breeding shed to greet him. After pulling out his phone to capture Justify coming off the trailer, Baffert stepped up to examine his former star runner under a shower of rain and camera clicks, and quipped, “He could still make the Breeders' Cup.”
Much like his dominant march to the Triple Crown, Justify's arrival to Ashford came with a feeling of inevitability realized. ESPN's Darren Rovell first broke the news that an agreement was in place between Coolmore and Justify's ownership group in May, prior to the colt's Belmont Stakes victory, which was worth up to a reported $75 million if he completed the classic sweep.
The reports of a deal being reached were initially denied by the colt's ownership, but WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden acknowledged a “possible sale” to Coolmore was in place when the colt was retired in July. Justify spent a month and a half at WinStar Farm in Versailles before the agreement was formally announced on Sept. 14, three days before his arrival at Ashford.
Justify was led through the breeding shed, a space he will become familiar with in the years to come, and taken to Ashford's top barn. For now, he resides in the corner stall once occupied by the late flagship Coolmore runner and stallion Giant's Causeway. Baffert playfully bowed in worship as Justify poked his head out of the stall.
“He is a very classy horse,” said Ashford Stud's Adrian Wallace. “You saw the way he came off the van, with all the press around, he didn't turn a hair. To come here at the same farm where American Pharoah stands is a huge honor for us.”
The stall of the first Triple Crown winner tied to Baffert and Coolmore sat empty on the other side of the barn, while American Pharoah serves the Southern Hemisphere breeding season at Coolmore's Australian base, due to return in December.
Wallace said joining the ranks of historic farms to have stood two Triple Crown winners – a club that also includes Claiborne, Calumet, and Spendthrift Farms – was not lost on him. Having a mainstream fan favorite at the level of American Pharoah has also given the Ashford staff some degree of preparation for standing another Triple Crown winner.
“We've learned never to underestimate the interest,” he said. “Every day of the year – we get calls on Christmas day to come see American Pharoah. We have to be mindful of the horse. Lucky, Pharoah couldn't be fazed. He's the most incredible-minded racehorse, and Justify looks like he's pretty much the same.”
Wallace said fans who want to visit the stallion can do so through booking a Horse Country tour.
“We probably won't have fan tours for the first month, but then throughout October, November, December, we'll get him ready and available for the public,” he said. “We just want to give him time to relax, get used to his surroundings, and get ready for his life as a stallion.”
Justify will spend the next the next few weeks getting adjusted to his new surroundings and his new handlers. He'll be shown to potential breeders and spend time in his paddock as the Ashford staff prepares his first book of mares.
“The book will be stellar,” Wallace said. “We'll probably send between 40 and 50 of our own mares, and I think he'll be supported by some of the best international breeders around. We haven't gotten any firm commitments yet, but plenty of interest. We'll see what happens in the coming weeks and months.”
The number of mares the Coolmore operation plans to send to Justify safely outnumbers the entire population of the Glennwood Farm broodmare band that produced the Triple Crown winner.
The Gunthers still have Justify's dam, Stage Magic, but Tanya Gunther said she's been looking forward to adding some of that family's DNA to the stallion's side of a few foals for a while.
“I've got a couple mares in mind,” Gunther said. “I've been thinking about that since he hit the track.”
Baffert, who has sent a fleet of sons to stud over the course of his Hall of Fame career, had the talking points down to help shepherd the colt on to his next phase.
While Justify nosed the boundaries of his new surroundings and sampled the hay in the corner, Baffert stood in front of the cameras and delivered the sales pitch, fine-tuned from having a front-row seat to the colt's achievements.
“Most horses can give you a good quarter-of-a-mile finish,” the trainer said. “He could give you five-eighths of a mile. If you look at him physically – the muscle on him, the power all over – he's just this muscle-bound horse, and usually a muscle-bound horse like that, they don't run very far, and he carried it. He not only had the physical, he had the endurance to go a mile and a half. He's a pretty freaky kind of horse, but he has the pedigree to back it up.
“I was telling them I'd like to pull a little prank and put some fake hip number on him and walk him though Keeneland just to see if anybody noticed him there,” Baffert continued. “They would have gone crazy for him.”
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