No competition in the United States compares to Belmont Park's spring-summer meet in its history-making potential.
This year's 48-day meet offers 59 stakes worth $18.4 million and the hope that maybe, just maybe, a Triple Crown champion will be crowned for the third time in five years after the coronation of American Pharoah in 2015 and the undefeated Justify last spring.
They were the 12th and 13th Triple Crown winners since Sir Barton became the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1919. Although American Pharoah ended a record 37-year drought, previous history suggests racing immortals can come in bunches.
The 1930's brought Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937). Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948) graced the 1940's. The superstar-studded 1970's produced the mighty Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
Who is to say that lightning cannot strike once more this decade when the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, featuring 18 stakes, eight of them Grade 1's, culminates in the $1.5 million “Test of the Champion” on June 8 at Belmont Park?
Those fortunate enough to attend last year's Belmont Stakes witnessed a 3-year-old so special that Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who rode Justify, declared that he was “sent from heaven.”
The chestnut colt, with an imposing physique and a keen mind to match, not only broke the Curse of Apollo as the first Kentucky Derby winner to be unraced at 2 since Apollo in 1882 but went on to sweep the Triple Crown 112 days after his Feb. 18 debut.
In that dizzying span, he won all six of his starts, capped by a gate-to-wire 1 ¾-length triumph against late-running Gronkowski in the Belmont Stakes before 90,327 delirious spectators at rockin' Belmont Park.
Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Sol Kumin's Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing, he became the first of the 13 Triple Crown champions to be retired undefeated when a nagging ankle injury prompted the close of his meteoric career in late July.
The abrupt end left even casual observers hungering for more and left historians to debate his place among the constellation of the sport's greatest stars.
“He was, by far, the best 3-year-old I've ever been on,” said Smith. “You never got to see what he was truly capable of. He was a beast. He was a monster. For him to do what he did in 112 days of training, it was unthinkable.”
Lenny Shulman, who chronicled every step of Justify's career for Triumph Books, said of the son of the late Scat Daddy, “What we do know as fact is that he did more in less time than any horse in history.”
Seattle Slew is the only Triple Crown champion that approaches Justify in that regard. The comparison, though, only adds to Justify's luster in certain respects. Slew debuted on Sept. 20, 1976 and gained valuable seasoning in making three starts as a 2-year-old. He defeated seven opponents in the Belmont Stakes when he completed the historic sweep and extended his perfection to nine for nine. Justify turned back nine foes in his Belmont, more than any previous Triple Crown legend.
Before American Pharoah worked his magic at Belmont Park in 2015, he was given a solid foundation by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert when he made three starts as a juvenile and emerged as 2-year-old champion.
Baffert faced such a compressed time frame in readying Justify for the Kentucky Derby that Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm and a former trainer, was concerned enough when he heard what the trainer was thinking that he cautioned him about rushing the youngster.
“When you don't start until Feb. 18, everything has to go perfect to make the Derby,” Walden said. “It seemed like an impossible task when you start Feb. 18.”
Horses, like all athletes, are susceptible to injuries and illness that cost training time. Justify could not afford any significant setback with the unforgiving schedule he was on. That makes his ascendance all the more remarkable.
“There was no day when you could afford to have a bad day with that horse,” Shulman said. “The number that go through that time without having something go wrong, it's not a lot.”
To some degree, racing champions are born. A horse must possess innate qualities such as speed, stamina and courage. But they also must be molded and handled expertly. Baffert and his team were ideal caretakers. And Smith, with his vast experience, could not have been better prepared for his moment in the sun as the oldest jockey to ride a Triple Crown winner at 52.
Baffert joined “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to oversee two Triple Crown winners. Fitzsimmons accomplished the feat with Gallant Fox in 1930 and with Omaha, a son of Gallant Fox, in 1935. When Baffert reached the Belmont winner's circle with Justify, it pushed him past D. Wayne Lukas and into the all-time lead with 15 victories in Triple Crown races.
If Baffert does not rank as the finest trainer of all time, he surely belongs among the select few. Justify marked his fifth Triple Crown bid, including consecutive tries with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997 and 1998. Gritty Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold coming with a wide, late move that overtook him by three-quarters of a length in the Belmont. Many believe jockey Kent Desormeaux moved a beat or two too soon when Victory Gallop, trained by Walden, nailed Real Quiet by a nose in the “Test of the Champion.”
With Justify, Baffert drew on his stunning successes and his agonizing defeats to bring what initially seemed an outlandish plan to fruition. Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, was hardly surprised when the magic happened for the second time in four years.
“Being able to get your horses to maintain their weight and condition and in peak form is an absolute art that he has mastered,” Zayat said.
Baffert's plan for Justify began with a strong first start, going seven furlongs at Santa Anita. He got that when Drayden Van Dyke guided the green colt to a 9 ½-length romp. With the pressure already ratcheting up, the trainer replaced young Van Dyke with Smith while asking his horse to step up to two turns in a one-mile allowance race on March 11, also at his home base of Santa Anita. The colt and his new passenger responded with a 6 ½-length score.
Since Justify still had no qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, he faced a monumental challenge in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7. He would have to make a successful jump from allowance to Grade 1 competition with a burner named Bolt d'Oro standing in his way. He handled Bolt d'Oro by three lengths.
The Curse of Apollo was all the talk in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby. Coaltown, unable to make the races at 2, was unable to overcome it when he placed second in the 1948 Derby. The Curse seemingly caught up to Forego (fourth, 1973) and Curlin (third, 2007) as well.
Baffert was undaunted. “The curse thing really didn't bother me,” he recalled. “I was just worried about us, just make sure we did everything right, we shipped right. (Assistant trainer) Jimmy Barnes, all my team, the gallop boys, everybody was in sync. Everybody stayed focused.”
When it came to Justify, curses be damned. He withstood testing early fractions in the mile-and-a-quarter Run for the Roses and repelled a valiant challenge from Good Magic, the battle-hardened 2-year-old champion, to hustle home by 2 ½ lengths on a track turned gooey by record Derby Day rain.
“His Derby was insane,” Zayat said appreciatively.
The Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course brought almost surreal conditions – more heavy rain, more mud and a dense fog. And, yes, there was another threat from Good Magic when his jockey, Jose Ortiz, became intent on dueling the favorite from the start. With race caller Larry Collmus relying on NBC's high-tech cameras, his voice rose with excitement as Justify emerged from the fog and held Bravazo at bay by half a length.
Skeptics suggested the shrinking margin would make it impossible for the colt to pass the Belmont's arduous mile-and-a-half test. Smith, though, insisted he made sure to keep something in reserve and was never in danger of being overtaken by Bravazo.
The challenge associated with the marathon distance seemingly increased when Justify drew the rail, a post Baffert dreaded because it forced Smith's hand to call on his mount early to secure good position. Smith asked. As always, Justify answered.
Smith said of Justify's push-button handiness, “If I wanted him to relax, I just drop my hands. And if I wanted him to go, I just squeeze on him a little.”
To Smith, the start meant everything. “As soon as we got out of the gate in good order, he got away straight and strong, I felt very confident that he was going to pull it off.”
Once a clear lead was established, Smith gently dropped his hands and Justify settled into that unbeatable rhythm of his.
“This horse had a perfect stride. He was put together as well as any horse could possibly be put together,” Shulman said. “I mean, physically, a perfect horse.”
Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, sensing that the pace was too comfortable for the frontrunner, moved earlier than planned with closer Vino Rosso. Smith welcomed that.
“It was actually a good thing for us,” he said. “He got into the bridle without me knuckling on him to get him going. My horse jumped into the bridle and focused and did what he needed to do.”
When Justify and Smith spun around the final turn and into the stretch run, fans could see history coming. The roar of the crowd increased with every stride, until it became almost deafening.
“It was just amazing,” Smith said. “Those kinds of moments are life-changing things you'll never forget, just a feeling you can't put into words.”
All of those who were part of Justify's tour de force, all of those fortunate enough to be at Belmont Park to watch his run to glory that June afternoon, will always bask in the glow of that triumph.
“It's like the lamp in the Statue of Liberty,” Smith said. “It just don't go out.”
Tom Pedulla is a freelance writer who has covered every Triple Crown race since 1998. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among other major outlets. He co-authored “Against the Odds: Riding for My Life,” the autobiography of Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey.
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