ELMONT, N.Y. — The rap against Justify in the run-up to the Kentucky Derby was that he was too lightly raced, having not competed as a 2-year-old, to be a serious threat.
Now, as the massive chestnut colt readies for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, skeptics carp that he can’t win the final and most arduous leg of the Triple Crown and, with it, a place in sporting history because he has been too heavily raced.
But since coming off his victory in the 1-3/16-mile mud puddle that was the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago, Justify has given no hint that his workload the past four months has exacted a toll or robbed his zeal for running hard, fast and out front, to the delight of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who watched through binoculars Thursday morning as the colt galloped at Belmont Park.
The decision to withhold Justify from competition as a 2-year-old, skipping the traditional finishing school for thoroughbreds from whom much is expected, wasn’t a decision at all, as Baffert explained. Rather, it was dictated by the horse himself, who hadn’t yet come into his massive body when Baffert was entrusted with his training in November 2017, as the 2-year-olds’ season was winding down.
There is no question that Justify has matured rapidly since, rampaging through his maiden event on Feb. 18 and each race that followed to arrive at Belmont Park with a 5-0 record and the favorite to become the 13th Triple Crown victor in the thoroughbred racing history.
Baffert’s admiration for Justify is palpable. For all the great horses he has trained — including Silver Charm, Point Given and 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah — his awe over being in the presence of a magnificent athlete has not dulled.
Justify towers over his handlers, standing 16.3 hands (1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, known as “Big Red,” was 16.2 hands), with an imposing bearing that exaggerates his prodigious size. At 1,380 pounds (compared to the average thoroughbred’s 1,100 pounds), Justify is sculpted of muscle-atop-muscle that flexes and ripples without effort, evident when he’s simply walked slowly around his barn.
If all thoroughbreds are alphas, Justify seems an extreme case, with a confidence bordering on arrogance, more pushy than regal.
As Baffert describes it, the horse’s arrival at Belmont Park’s No. 1 barn Wednesday caused a commotion. “All the horses in the barn were all screaming and yelling,” he said. “He got their attention. It’s almost like they were greeting him.”
If his stablemates indeed recognized Justify, it was likely by his hindquarters, as that’s what the 19 other Derby contenders saw as he thundered over the finish 2½ lengths ahead of Good Magic on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs on May 5. The view at the Preakness, where he held off Bravazo by a half-length, was tougher to make out, obscured by fog and mud.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Justify’s impressive 3-year-old campaign raises the question of whether there is a lesson to be learned from his atypical, though not unheard of, delayed start to competition. Will his success herald a trend of more 2-year-olds forgoing races? Or is it unique to him — the upshot of the only viable option, given the pace at which the big colt developed?
Both things may hold true.
H. Graham Motion, the British-born trainer who achieved a “first” in preparing Animal Kingdom, a colt who had never run on dirt, to win the 2011 Kentucky Derby, said he has sensed a move toward more lightly raced horses in the Derby in recent years.
“As trainers, we try to space the horse races out much more and only run them once or twice as a 2-year-old,” Motion explained. “I do think there has been a shift in the way horses are trained and managed. I think there is a good chance you’ll see more of it.”
Rather than declaring that good or bad, Motion views it as “a different way of thinking,” explaining: “We tend to be a little more conservative with how we race horses and don’t like to expose them as much.”
At the same time, he notes that each horse is an individual.
There is no formula for the progression of a champion thoroughbred, just as there is no formula for how many years of college basketball a future Hall of Fame NBA player needs. Four? One? None? What about would-be Wimbledon champions? Should they turn pro at 16? 18? 20?
In the case of an unusually big horse such as Justify, size can be the determining factor.
“Sometimes, bigger horses take longer to develop,” said Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s trusted assistant trainer these last 18 years. “They tell you when they’re ready. You can’t push them to be ready. If they can handle it, fine. If not, you just give them the time they need to grow and develop.”
By all accounts, Justify has been happy since his triumph in the Preakness slop. He is eating everything that’s put in front of him, his handlers say, which is a good sign because weight loss isn’t what you want amid a Triple Crown run.
But a 1,380-pound athlete is tricky. A trainer must listen to what the horse’s mood and mannerisms are saying, Barnes explained, and adjust his schedule accordingly.
“He has got a very good mind on him and handles race day really well,” Barnes said of Justify. “But there are other times, just in his normal routine, he can be a little bossy and a little pushy in the stall. Whereas American Pharoah was kind all the time, this horse is a big horse, and he lets you know. If he’s feeling good, he lets you know he’s feeling good.”
By the same token, if Justify is bored of too many “easy” days of training, he lets Barnes know when he wants to get back on the track.
A few days ago, the colt bit Baffert when he was walking him.
“He’s a handful,” Baffert said. “You have to watch him; he likes to push you around. He’s not a mean horse, but his patience level with people is, like, five seconds.”
Justify’s groom was reminded of that during bath time Wednesday, when the colt kicked a tree-trunk-sized hind leg each time he dabbed him with a big sponge.
“This horse is just as smart as [American Pharoah], but is just not as loving or caring,” Baffert said. “This horse — for about four seconds you can love on him. But that’s it.”
The trick is to listen to Justify’s timetable, accommodate it and then get out of the way.
“He has brought us along,” Baffert said, discounting any master plan behind Justify’s development. “We’ve just been riding his coattails.”
More from Post Sports: