Justify, who captured the attention of the racing world with a whirlwind blitz of the Triple Crown, highlights this year’s midyear report.
The second half of the year will climax with the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3, returning to the site of the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2011. The 3-year-old Justify will look to ride off into the sunset as one of racing’s all-time greats with a win in the Classic against older horses.
Saratoga Race Course is the likely host of several of the top stars at its upcoming meet. However, it’s a long shot that Justify will run at the Spa, with west coast options or the Haskell Invitational in Oceanport, N.J., on July 29 in the mix for the son of Scat Daddy.
Locally, the Queen’s Plate is heating up in Toronto and will kick off the Canadian Triple Crown Saturday at Woodbine Racetrack. A full field of 16, including two fillies, will contest in Canada’s Most Famous Race. The Prince of Wales Stakes, Fort Erie’s signature race and the middle jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, is set for Tuesday evening, July 24 at the border oval.
Let’s take a look at the midyear highs and lows in thoroughbred racing to date.
Justify becomes racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. Following in American Pharoah’s hoofprints, the colt that broke the curse of Apollo by winning the Derby without a 2-year-old start went on to win all three classics. After a solid win in the slop at Churchill Downs, and in the fog at Pimlico, racing’s newest superstar held up at Big Sandy. He conquered the biggest field to ever contend against a Triple Crown winner, holding off a game Gronkowski by 1½-lengths to capture racing’s Holy Grail.
Gun Runner rides off into the sunset with a win in the Pegasus. The son of Candy Ride dominated the Pegasus for his fifth straight victory and retired winning seven of his last eight. He capped off a terrific career in which he won the Whitney, Woodward, Stephen Foster, the Clark and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His only loss in his last eight races was a second-place finish to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup in 2017. The win in the second annual Pegasus brought his career earnings to $17,988,500; second all-time to Arrogate.
Monomoy Girl streaks out to lead in 3-year-old division. Another superstar in the making, Monomoy Girl captured four straight graded races in the first half of 2018, including the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, the biggest race for 3-year-old fillies. The daughter of Tapizar could be a force in the second half of the racing season. Don’t be surprised if she takes on the boys at some point. She’s that good.
Smith, Baffert continue their Belmont Stakes day fortunes. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert teamed up for three wins on Belmont Stakes day this year after serving up four last year. That’s an amazing seven consecutive wins for the combination on Belmont day. This year, in addition to the win aboard Justify, the connections scored with Abel Tasman (Phipps) and Hoppertunity (Brooklyn Handicap). The Belmont Stakes win gave Smith his first Triple Crown and Baffert his second, tying Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. It was also the 15th Triple Crown race win for Baffert, breaking a tie with D. Wayne Lukas for the most.
Gronkowski storms onto the scene. Not the All-Pro Tight End, but the horse he co-owns with Phoenix Thoroughbreds. After qualifying for the Kentucky Derby with a win in the Busanda Stakes as the European qualifier, an illness quashed his Derby chances. Fast forward to a trainer change to Chad Brown, the son of an Australian Horse of the Year Lonhro, Gronkowski entered the Belmont. He ran a game second and if not for a bad start may have upset Justify’s chances at a Triple Crown. He is pointing towards the Travers and Saratoga for his next start.
West Coast upset in the Dubai World Cup. With the retirement of Gun Runner, the stage was set for West Coast to grab the reins as the top thoroughbred in the U.S. after finishing second in the Pegasus. As the post time favorite in the World Cup, he was upset by last year’s UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow, finishing a distant second. He has yet to run back in the U.S. after returning from the Middle East.
Death on the backstretch at Belmont Park. As reported in the Daily Racing Form, a backstretch worker was knifed to death on June 17 by a former boyfriend. Maria Larin, 51, was a stable worker in the Doodnauth Shivmangal barn. The former boyfriend was taken into custody by the police after he was detained by a NYRA security guard. Less than a week later, tragedy struck again when it was reported that a Belmont Park worker died of bacterial sepsis earlier in the month. Inspectors and epidemiologists from the State Health Department were sent in to inspect and 32 workers were relocated due to poor conditions.
Last year’s Older Turf Champion World Approval struggles. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup and Woodbine Mile winner turned those performances into the Older Turf champion at January’s Eclipse Awards. After winning the G3 Tampa Bay Stakes early in the year, the 6-year-old gelding has struggled to regain his form finishing off the board in Kentucky in the Wise Dan two weeks ago after a disappointing fifth in the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita in March.
With the excitement of a Triple Crown in the books and the chance to establish himself as one of the all-time greats, all eyes will be on Justify in the second half of the year.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.