BELMONT – On a picture perfect Saturday afternoon on Long Island, horse racing, a sport with a long and rich tradition, once again reigned supreme at Belmont Park.
Justify ($3.60), a 3-year-old chestnut purchased for $500,000, etched his name in racing history, becoming only the second undefeated colt to capture the Triple Crown by going wire-to-wire to win the 150th Belmont Stakes.
Thundering down the seemingly never-ending Belmont stretch, the son of Scat Daddy completed the final leg of racing’s Holy Grail to the sustained roar of 90,327 race fans at beautiful Belmont Park.
The old grandstand shook with fervor as echoes from the past stirred memories of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, modern members of the Triple Crown circle.
He had his way leading the group of nine competitors around the track in 2:28.18, putting away a premature charge by Vino Rosso on the far turn and then Gronkowski in the stretch to cruise to the 1 3/4-length win.
Just three short years after American Pharoah snapped a 37-year Triple Crown drought, Justify is the 13th horse to complete the triad of classic races comprised of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Seattle Slew was also undefeated when he won the Triple Crown in 1977, four years after Secretariat ended another long drought. The two horses will be forever entwined as undefeated winners of racing’s most prized achievement.
They both followed fantastic horses into the exclusive club whom ended prolonged droughts, for Slew it was the great Secretariat who he drew constant comparisons to in the 70s. With Bob Baffert also training American Pharoah in 2015, comparisons have abounded surrounding his two Triple Crown titleholders during the week leading up to the big race.
But this was Justify’s day.
A day where he proved that he could handle the Test of a Champion, the longest of the Triple Crown races over Belmont’s deep, sandy surface. After capturing the first two legs on wet tracks, the day couldn’t be more glorious for Justify to join racing’s immortals.
For the third consecutive day, a major championship trophy was raised as Justify joined Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals and Kevin Durant and the Warriors at the apex of the sports world. That’s quite the trifecta.
As Buffalonians, we hope to one day celebrate a championship and capture that indescribable feeling of being on top. Seeing it happen in horse racing twice in the last four years makes the thirst even stronger for that initial Bills or Sabres championship after watching the elation of each champion over the last three days.
Bob Baffert secured his second career Triple Crown victory, joining "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons as the only trainer in history to win it twice. He moved ahead of D. Wayne Lukas in career Triple Crown race victories with his 15th, one he’ll certainly never forget.
"I wanted to see that horse, his name up there with those greats," said Baffert. "If they're great, they're going to win the Triple Crown. It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown."
Owned in partnership by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, Justify earned $800,000 for the win and boosted his career earnings to $3,798,000.
This Triple Crown feat was simply unthinkable when you look back at Justify’s first race on Feb. 18 of this year, just 111 days ago. The first colt to secure the Kentucky Derby without a start as a 2-year-old, he overcame a foot bruise to win the Preakness at foggy Pimlico before his arrival in the Big Apple. The win on Saturday was the rangy colt's sixth straight since that February maiden-breaker at Santa Anita Park.
All week on the backstretch just outside the city that doesn’t sleep, the buzz didn’t seem to be there like it was for Pharoah’s try in 2015. Baffert didn’t seem as nervous. He was much more relaxed than the previous attempt with Pharoah, more confident that his horse was ready to take all comers.
Pressure? Baffert pooh-poohed the thought every time it came up during the week.
Bill Mott, trainer of third-place finisher Hofburg lamented that fact that no one challenged Justify. “There was no pace,” said Mott. “Nobody put any pressure on the horse and he kind of walked the dog going around there.”
Mott who combined with winning jockey Mike Smith to win the 2010 Belmont with Drosselmeyer, heaped praise on Justify’s jockey for controlling the race. “You got to give him credit, he did it right up on the pace and everybody had the opportunity to take their shot,” said Mott. They didn’t do it today, they kind of let him go too easy.”
Hall of Famer Johnny Velazquez echoed Mott’s sentiments about his long-time friend who captured his third career Belmont and became the oldest jockey at age 52 to win the Triple Crown. “My hat is off to Mike,” said Velazquez who rode fourth-place finisher Vino Rosso. “I’ve know him for so long, and for him to get this now at this age, I’m really happy for him.”
Jose Ortiz, who met Western New York native and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski in the paddock described him as “very big, a very cool guy,” thought his namesake had a shot at Justify in the stretch.
“When we passed the three-eighths pole I had a good chance to win, I thought I had a lot of horse underneath me,” said Ortiz. “When he [Justify] switched leads he got away from me like two lengths and that was a game changer.”
He was pleased with the efforts of Gronkowski. “I worked him twice, I felt like he was a pretty good horse. He never ran on dirt before, never past a mile, and he ran a mile-and-a-half. I’m very happy the way he ran, he’s going to be big down the road,” said Ortiz.
For Justify, who ran in the silks of the China Horse Club, it is yet to be determined if he’ll race again. Other than facing older males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he could retire as the only undefeated winner of the Triple Crown.
Seattle Slew went on to race eight more times, losing three races through his retirement after the 1978 campaign. He defeated Affirmed in the 1978 Marlboro Cup, the only time Triple Crown winners have ever faced off.
Triple crowns seem to come in bunches. The 30s and 70s produced three Triple Crown winners and the 40s produced four. It’s still one of the most difficult achievements in all of sports.
American Pharoah finally unlocked the door to the elusive club and gave Justify the key.
Saturday afternoon amidst the elation of those at Belmont Park, he waltzed right in.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.