ELMONT, N.Y. — Justify’s career started late, but he’s more than made up for lost time.
The strapping chestnut colt who did not race at age 2 completed the Triple Crown quest Saturday by winning the Belmont Stakes, adding that to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories to become just the 13th horse in history to sweep those three races. In the process, Justify carried trainer Bob Baffert into an unprecedented place in the annals of thoroughbred racing.
Justify won the Belmont wire-to-wire, starting from the No. 1 spot, bolting to the lead right from the gate, and never relinquishing it throughout the mile-and-a-half gallop that took 2 minutes, 28 seconds.
Gronkowski (24-1) — named after the football player — finished second, 1¾-lengths back. Hofburg (5-1) took third.
Baffert now has won 15 Triple Crown races, most of any trainer. It also was his second Triple Crown, having won it three years ago with American Pharoah; this triumph ties Baffert with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only men to win the Crown more than once. Fitzsimmons won it in 1930 with Gallant Fox and ’35 with Omaha.
“It’s just amazing, so proud to be an American, to feel this wave. It’s very emotional to me,” Baffert said. “It never gets old. American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love. … But [jockey] Mike Smith, he deserved something like this.”
Baffert has had five career chances to win the Triple Crown, losing the first three at the Belmont with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (’98) and War Emblem (2002). Needless to say, his luck at this track has improved dramatically.
Justify becomes just the second horse to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated career record, joining Seattle Slew in 1977. Justify is perfect through six races, not running his first race until Feb. 18. He has rocketed from anonymity to legendary status in a span of just 112 days.
After plowing through the slop in both the Derby and Preakness, Justify finally got a dry track to run on Saturday and it showcased his brilliance under Mike Smith, who at 52 became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. Smith steered him to the lead from the opening of the gate, held off a few minor challenges but never seemed threatened throughout the entirety of the longest leg of the Triple Crown.
As Justify turned toward the stretch, still in front, the thought was … does he have enough? He did. Plenty. Longshot Gronkowski made a late run, exciting his namesake (and part-owner). But Justify, as he was in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was just too strong.
In addition to the $800,000 winner’s purse, the Triple Crown achievement further enhanced the bank accounts of owners WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Stables and Starlight Racing. Justify earned a minimum $15 million bonus (and reportedly as high as $25 million) from Coolmore Stud, which previously paid $60 million for the colt’s breeding rights last month.
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