How Justify went from unknown to immortal in 112 days

ELMONT, N.Y. — Twenty-two years ago, when Bob Baffert was a naïve newcomer to this Triple Crown thing, his horse Cavonnier lost the Kentucky Derby in a photo finish. An hour after finishing second in the biggest race of his life by mere inches, Baffert was standing on the paddock bricks at Churchill Downs with his blue suitcoat slung over his shoulder. He looked dazed and sounded demoralized.

He figured he’d never get back. Figured he’d lost his best – and perhaps only – shot at one of the jewels of his sport. A former quarterhorse trainer from small-town Arizona, he’d scarcely dreamed of even competing at that level — it would be crazy to envision becoming a regular part of this grandeur.

Twenty-two years later, after a beautiful race on a beautiful June evening in New York, Baffert has become the undisputed king of the Triple Crown. A guy who thought he might never find the winner’s circle in one of the three biggest American races has been there a staggering, record-setting 15 times. And now he’s won two Triple Crowns in a span of four years, also an unprecedented feat.

Along the way to establishing himself as the greatest trainer the sport has ever seen, Baffert might have done his single best training job with Justify, the 13th Triple Crown winner in history.

The strapping chestnut colt that went wire-to-wire in the Belmont Saturday, following soggy victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, is a prodigious talent — powerful, naturally fast, smart, assertive and apparently tireless. But only one trainer could have completed the rush order it took to get this late bloomer ready for the Triple Crown.

Only Bob Baffert could pull this off.

After his first workout, Bob told his brother Bill he had a “f—king monster” in his barn. But the calendar was working against him.

Justify didn’t compete until Feb. 18, starting his racing career as much as nine months later than some members of his generation. Then he crammed six races into 112 days — winning all of them. For a modern thoroughbred to complete that gauntlet is incredible, and Baffert might be the only trainer with the guts and requisite rigorous training regimen to even try it.

Bob Baffert celebrates winning the Triple Crown for a second time, this time with Justify. (AP)
Bob Baffert celebrates winning the Triple Crown for a second time, this time with Justify. (AP)

“It’s a remarkable training job,” said fellow trainer Chad Brown, who finished second to Justify Saturday with long shot Gronkowski and second in the Derby with Good Magic. “One of the greatest of all-time.”

Along the way to immortality, Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2 — and did it on the wettest Derby day in the race’s 144-year history. Then he followed that by surviving a withering speed duel amid a surreal fog at the Preakness, holding off a host of challengers at the end.

And then came the Belmont, a race that has derailed 13 aspiring Triple Crown winners since 1978 — only Baffert’s American Pharoah had conquered the challenge, in 2015. And now Justify has done it, too.

Justify not only never trailed at Belmont, he was never seriously challenged for the lead — which perpetuates his lifetime running form. Race charts record horse’s positions at various stages; of Justify’s 31 charted positions, 26 of them have been in first place.

“He is one of the all-time great horses,” Baffert said. “I’m just glad we were able to pull this off.”

While the totality of the feat is jaw-dropping, the final stage was almost anticlimactic. Justify made it look easy, continuing his seemingly effortless progression from the Preakness to the Belmont.

Returning to Churchill Downs from Baltimore to train for this race, Justify turned in a spectacular workout May 29, rocketing through a half mile in 46⅘ seconds. Baffert horses always work fast, but that was unusually fast at that stage of this 112-day gauntlet.

“Pretty incredible,” Baffert said at the time.

Justify came back with a more relaxed, deliberate workout June 4, but did it so easily that all the horse’s connections were again dazzled. Martin Garcia, who flew in from California to ride Justify in both workouts, used the same Mexican slang buzzword with Baffert that he did in 2015 after working American Pharoah: “chingon.” Loosely translated, the horse was a badass.

Justify then shipped to New York last Wednesday, and when he arrived something happened that amazed Baffert. Once he came off the van and started walking down the shedrow in the Belmont barn where he would stay, the other horses in the barn came to the front of their stalls and began rearing and neighing.

“Like LeBron is in the house,” Baffert said. “I’ve never seen that in my life. It was incredible.”

Justify carried that same presence to the track Thursday, galloping so strongly that he appeared too full of run so close to a 1½-mile marathon race. Baffert watched him gallop by from trackside and said, half to himself and half the horde around him, “Easy, boy.”

But WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden, who helped select the horse for purchase as a yearling and sent him to Baffert to train, loved what he saw.

“That’ll do,” Walden said, cheerily.

“I’ll sleep better tonight,” Baffert responded. “I’ll enjoy those meatballs.”

Justify with jockey Mike Smith aboard wins the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. (REUTERS)
Justify with jockey Mike Smith aboard wins the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. (REUTERS)

That was a reference to an appearance the Justify team had to make at Rao’s, a landmark Italian restaurant in East Harlem. It was the site Thursday afternoon of a press conference to announce that Wheels Up, the private jet company, was sponsoring Justify.

Rao’s is something out of a mob movie script: a tiny Italian joint with about 10 tables and more than 100 pictures on the wall of celebrity visitors — athletes and entertainers and TV journalists. It’s been in business continuously since 1896, and jockey Smith said he heard there is a six-month waiting list for one of those few tables.

Plates of soppressata, mozzarella, peppers and, yes, meatballs greeted Justify’s connections. There were no signs of nervousness.

“I just want him to run his race,” Baffert said. “He’s such a superior animal, I just want him to show up.”

Said Walden: “It’s really Justify’s race to lose. If he gets in his rhythm, runs his race, it’s going to be off the charts.”

The Justify hype wagon gathered more passengers Friday — a news helicopter hovered over Belmont to film his morning gallop from above. The media crowd that followed the colt to the track and back to the barn was so big that Baffert had to direct the human traffic to keep them out of Justify’s path.

Saturday unfolded like a dream. Earlier weather forecasts calling for rain changed to sunny and dry, giving Justify a chance to race on a fast track for the first time since April. Baffert won two big-money races earlier in the day. Good karma flowed.

An hour before the race, Justify got a bath from the stable hands, looking utterly calm and collected as traffic went by on Hempstead Turnpike on the other side of the fence. Then the horse was moved down to a staging barn with the other Belmont entrants before heading to the raucous paddock.

While the horses walked the shedrow in the staging barn, Baffert had his ritualistic decompression dialog with the media — and anyone else who happened to be around. He’s a talker, especially in stressful situations. Cracking jokes and kibitzing gets him through the minutes leading up to a big race.

The first news item: The Burger King guy would be back again in the Baffert grandstand box for the race, just as he was in 2015 with American Pharoah. Then, it was a money grab — Baffert cashed a fat check. This time it might have been more about superstition.

“The King is back,” Baffert announced. “F—kin’ A.”

Bob then pulled his five children into the conversation — twentysomethings Forest, Canyon, Taylor and Savannah, from his first marriage, and 13-year-old Bode, from his second.

“I’m proud of you guys,” Baffert said. “You’re very sober today.”

(That had not been the case at the Preakness, and perhaps not at the Derby, either.)

“Can you name five horses I’m training now?” Baffert teased Savannah.

“I know the big one,” she responded.

Despite the light chatter, Baffert was preparing for a brawl of a race. Justify had looked vulnerable at Pimlico after being pressured by Good Magic, and the expectation was for a similar early challenge here — especially since Justify was breaking from the No. 1 post, potentially susceptible to being trapped on the rail.

“They’re not going to hand it to him,” Baffert said. “We’re going to find out how much hostility there is for him.”

Surprisingly little, as it would turn out.

But first, there was the brisk walk through a rowdy crowd to the grandstand box. Once Baffert got there, he found The King and his wife, Jill, arm in arm, swaying and singing along to “New York, New York.” Jill Baffert shrugged as she sang, fully aware of the absurdity of it all.

A few minutes later, the horses were loaded into the starting gate. The only viable tension was the break — a clean break would put Justify in perfect position; a late break could be fatal.

Jockey Mike Smith got his horse out of the gate alertly and veered left, into open space along the rail. Justify made the lead easily, and the race was over almost as soon as it began.

“He jumped to the left, but he jumped very fast to the left,” Smith said. “He was about a head or neck in front after the first couple jumps, and I was very happy with that.”

After the start, Baffert focused on the clock. He wanted deliberate fractions, nothing too fast, given the length of the race. Earlier in the day he’d said he wanted “1:13 and change” at the halfway mark of the race, and that’s exactly what he got.

Smith expertly judged the pace the rest of the way, mostly sitting still on Justify’s back until the home stretch. When he urged the horse, Justify opened up daylight on the field. Then he held off the surprisingly game Gronkowski for the win, and for the spot in history.

For the 52-year-old Smith, it was a crowning achievement at a very late juncture in his career. Partnering with Baffert made it happen.

“Bob’s helped me achieve so many of my goals,” Smith said. “But today he made my dream come true. … He put an old man up there to sit still.”

Baffert didn’t offer a lot of introspection about his own, enhanced place in history. But sitting in the Belmont Park theater room, with the names of the previous 12 Triple Crown winners on the walls, his voice did thicken with emotion talking about Justify.

“I don’t really want to compare them,” he said of Justify and American Pharoah, “because if they make this wall, that’s really all you have to say.”

Bob Baffert deserves his own wall — at Belmont, at Pimlico and at Churchill. Twenty-two years after his original Triple Crown experience ended in heartbreak, he’s now the greatest trainer of them all.

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