Five minutes after Santa Anita's admission gates opened at 10 a.m. Saturday, a line estimated at more than 3,000 people had formed as racing devotees flocked to get a quick word with Justify's Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith as he signed Triple Crown posters adjacent to the Kingsbury Fountain in the West Paddock Gardens.
“We've never seen anything close to this kind of response for an autographed item,” said Santa Anita Vice President, Marketing Nate Newby. “We easily had 3,000 people to start and even though we've encouraged about 500 of the folks at the rear to take a poster and try to get it autographed later, we've still got thousands of people waiting to see Mike. We printed 4,000 posters (free, with paid admission) and we're going to run out before the first race.
“The poster is first class and so is everything about this Triple Crown story. For this horse to start out here on Feb. 18 and win the Belmont 111 days later is an achievement that'll likely stand for all-time.
“We're looking forward to something really special this afternoon when Justify comes out after the fourth race, and if this poster signing is any indication, we're going to have a massive turnout for Justify himself.”
The buzz was louder than usual at Santa Anita's popular gathering spot, Clockers' Corner, Saturday morning, in anticipation of Justify going center stage in a few hours.
After all, it's not often fans can see an undefeated Triple Crown winner up close and personal at his home track.
Two new faces among the crowd were a husband and wife from La Palma, which borders Orange County and Los Angeles County, some 32 miles and 36 minutes from Arcadia.
It was their first visit to a race track, and they came to see Justify. The man, who happened to be an amputee, was in a wheelchair, while the woman sat at a table nearby, both like children on Christmas morning, absorbing Santa Anita's singular atmosphere in wide-eyed wonderment.
When Justify's trainer, the readily recognizable Bob Baffert, happened to appear, the man asked if he would join them for a photo. Baffert complied. The couple was overjoyed.
Thanks to Baffert's act of kindness, the two first-time race trackers are likely to return again and again, and at a time when racing needs all the good will and live bodies it can get, it was a gesture that serves the game well.
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