ELMONT, N.Y. — It was Justify’s moment, after all.
In a withering display of power and durability, the late-blooming colt who didn’t race as a 2-year-old proved Saturday he couldn’t be worn out as a 3-year-old, thundering to victory in the Belmont Stakes to claim a place in history as the sport’s 13th Triple Crown champion.
After a 37-year drought in which the feat seemed impossible, Justify became the second horse in four years to achieve it, schooled, like 2015 predecessor American Pharoah, by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Before Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, which Justify won by 1¾ lengths over surprise second-place finisher Gronkowski, the massive chestnut colt with the white blaze had won the Kentucky Derby by a 2½ -length margin, becoming the first since Apollo in 1882 to win the classic without running as a 2-year-old. Two weeks later, Justify weathered torrential rain and a blanket of fog to win the Preakness Stakes, setting himself up for the Triple Crown bid.
All that remained was to prove that he had the toughness and resolve to conquer the longest, most grueling leg of the Triple Crown — the Belmont Stakes. On Saturday, Justify did just that before a rapturous crowd of 90,327, leading wire-to-wire to cover the 1½ -mile distance in 2:28.18 with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard. And he did it in the fading moments of a sun-splashed afternoon with a show of versatility, mastering a dry, fast track that represented a far different test than the slop he had slogged through at Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course.
Justify’s dominance in a 10-horse field that included Preakness runner-up Bravazo and Derby horses Hofburg (who finished third), Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy moved Baffert to tears afterward as his thoughts turned to his late parents and friends he has lost, convinced they have somehow been helping him these last years.
With Saturday’s triumph, Baffert, 65, became only the second trainer to win two Triple Crowns (along with the late James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, whose triumphs came in 1930 and 1935, with Gallant Fox and Omaha, respectively). He also pulled ahead of longtime friend and rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 82, to claim a record 15 wins in Triple Crown races (five Kentucky Derbys, seven Preakness Stakes and three Belmont Stakes). But Baffert was far more interested afterward in speaking about how fitting and satisfying it felt to help Justify place his name alongside those of such champions as Secretariat, who had claimed his Triple Crown 45 years to the day earlier, winning the Belmont by a record 31 lengths, in a record 2:24.
“The great ones, they just find another gear,” Baffert said of Justify, who improved to 6-0 and joined Seattle Slew as the only horse to claim the Triple Crown with an unbeaten record. “He is a magnificent animal.”
Smith, 52, the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown, gave all the credit to Justify, noting that all he had done was “let a good horse be a good horse.”
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” Smith said. “He is so gifted. He is sent from heaven, I tell you.”
Like “Big Red,” as Secretariat was lovingly called, Justify (an even bigger “Big Red,” at 16.3 hands and 1,380 pounds, compared with a typical 1,100-pound thoroughbred), drew the No. 1 post. While it served Secretariat well, it posed a concern for Baffert, who worried his muscular colt might get pinned against the rail if he didn’t break well.
The first horse to load in the gate, Justify stayed so still and steady as the other nine followed suit that Smith worried for a moment that he might not break at all. But he shot out with a fury, took a 1½ -length lead at the quarter pole and never let a challenger get closer than that.
Justify wore different silks than he sported in the Derby under a previous agreement among his four-way ownership group, swapping WinStar Farm’s white and green for China Horse Club International’s red with yellow stars. Baffert had joked earlier in the week that, with luck, the jockeys who had their sights set on beating Justify might get confused by the change.
No chance. Between his imposing size and glistening chestnut coat, Justify is difficult to overlook, particularly with his muscular hind legs propelling him forward.
Behind him horses diced for position. The lightly regarded Gronkowski, dead last through the first half-mile, fittingly played the role of lead disrupter. With New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski screaming in the stands, his namesake colt surged to third at the 1¼ -mile mark, then unseated Vino Rosso for second as the field turned for home.
Smith, with two previous Belmont Stakes victories to his credit, kept it simple, sensing the power in the competitor beneath him. He took his hand away to give Justify a periodic breath, then gave him a squeeze when he wanted more.
“He listens to you — to everything I do,” Smith said afterward.
And on they thundered, with the front-running jockey keeping the red-and-yellow silks clean as the other horses got caked in dirt.
“Once they turned toward home, I felt at that point he’d hold anybody off who was coming,” Smith said.
In the winner’s circle afterward, the deafening cheers and applause weren’t simply a reward; they were vindication.
When skeptics questioned his audacious ambitions for the late-developing colt, Baffert said Justify was talented enough to win the Kentucky Derby with minimal experience. And when they questioned Justify’s grueling workload — five races in a three-month span, with the Belmont his sixth in less than four months — Baffert said his horse was tough enough to handle it.
On this afternoon, they had each other’s backs. Horse racing’s defiant ones proved they were hostage to no timetable but their own.