Some legends don't need long careers to make an indelible mark on their sport. Running backs Jim Brown and Barry Sanders both retired from Hall of Fame careers before turning 31. Injuries forced Mike Bossy, one of the NHL's best all-time goal scorers, out of the league at a similar age. Sandy Koufax called it a career after winning five straight ERA titles.
In 2018, Justify gave horse racing the equivalent of an all-time talent who dominated and then gracefully exited the stage. A six-race career spanned just 112 days, but the Scat Daddy colt joined the pantheon of legends in becoming just the 13th Triple Crown winner and the only one of those baker's dozen to finish his career undefeated.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert knew what it took to win a Triple Crown, having conditioned American Pharoah, who ended the sports' 37-year drought when he added a Belmont Stakes victory to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness trophies in 2015. Just three years later, Baffert became the second trainer of all-time [joining Jim 'Sunny Jim' Fitzsimmons] to win two Triple Crowns. But the road back took some patience.
Justify wasn't an unknown commodity. Purchased for $500,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale from Glennwood Farm, Justify was Triple Crown-nominated. After going unraced as a 2-year-old, the chestnut colt with a large white blaze on his forehead finally got to the races in February of his sophomore campaign, posting an eye-opening 9 ½-length maiden victory at Santa Anita Park.
Baffert was already keeping busy on the Kentucky Derby prep circuit, with McKinzie winning the 2017 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity and the 2018 Sham Stakes, while stablemate Solomini ran third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity one month after a second-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
But after Justify's effort at Santa Anita, the racing world took notice. America's Best Racing described the win as a “spectacular display of speed, power, and overall brilliance. For a horse to run as fast as he did who possesses such a big long stride and seems to do everything so effortlessly, there is no telling what his ceiling is.”
The lack of prep time, along with the daunting specter of the “Curse of Apollo,” made for a challenging backdrop for Justify's road to the Kentucky Derby. But Baffert was undeterred despite the delayed start.
“It's not too late,” Baffert said at the time. “I've got a plan…We're looking [for a graded stakes race']. He's shown his brilliance in the morning.”
Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey, picked up the mount from Drayden Van Dyke for Justify's second start, a 6 ½-length win against allowance company on March 11 over the same track.
That morning brilliance continued to be extended to afternoons, when Smith piloted his charge to a three-length score in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 7. That solidified his credentials to compete in the Kentucky Derby, where Justify overcame history in becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882, the same year Tom Edison flipped the switch to the country's first commercial electrical power plant, to win the “Run for the Roses” without a start as a juvenile.
In the rain and on a sloppy tack, the 5-2 favorite bested 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic by 2 ½ lengths to win the Derby in front of more than 157,000 people at Churchill Downs.
“It will take a horse like him to break that curse and just wow, he's just something else,” Smith told to reporters at the time. “He's got unbelievable talent and then he's got a mind to go with it. For such a young horse he is just so big and talented.”
In mythology, Apollo was a skilled archer who never missed, and Justify kept on winning as well after his curse-busting effort. Befitting his growing lore, he again produced a dramatic victory in the second jewel of American Classics, emerging from a thick fog to the wire at Pimlico as 134,487 people cheered as Justify won by a half-length over Bravazo, trained by fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
“It was like the longest race of my life,” said Teo Ah Khing, chairman of the China Horse Club, which co-owned Justify with Heads of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm, to reporters in Baltimore that day. “Twenty seconds without seeing the horse felt like years.”
New York got its first exposure to Justify when he arrived at Belmont Park on June 6, being stabled in trainer John Terranova's barn. A close friend of Baffert, Terranova had been taking care of the California-based Baffert's shippers for three decades, including American Pharoah before his Triple Crown-clinching run in 2015.
Just three days later, Justify mirrored American Pharoah in more than just temporary accommodations. In front of more than 90,000 fans at Belmont Park and more than 15 million watching on NBC, Justify added his name to the list of what race-caller Larry Collmus called “immortals,” wiring the 10-horse field in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Under Smith's confident stewardship, Justify broke alertly, setting fractions of 23.37 seconds, 48.11, 1:13.21 and 1:38.09 on Big Sandy. In the stretch, Justify outkicked the Chad Brown-trained Gronkowski, making his first North American start, by 1 ¾ lengths, hitting the wire in 2:28.18 to earn a spot in history and the carnation blanket.
When Smith led Justify into the winner's circle, it marked the horse's last public act as an active racehorse. After suffering inflammation in his left ankle, the connections retired him in late July.
Justify's final career record was 6-for-6 with earnings of nearly $3.8 million and four Grade 1 wins. He was just the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, along with Seattle Slew in 1977, and the only one of those 13 historic horses to finish his career unblemished.
“Like everyone else, I am disappointed he won't run again, but I am thankful he came into my life,” Smith said to the New York Times. “There was never a time when I rode him that I felt like I was going to get beat.”
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