Cheered on by fans wearing yellow foam crowns instead of the Egyptian headdresses that greeted American Pharoah in 2015, Justify won the Belmont Stakes in emphatic fashion on Saturday to earn a crown of his own. Some may believe it is not as golden as American Pharoah’s, but it is a crown nonetheless.
With a white blaze, a sweeping stride and an unblemished record, Justify came to the site where Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought and, guided by the same trainer, took his own shot at history.
Ridden by the 52-year-old ironman Mike Smith, Justify did not disappoint the crowd of about 90,000 as he quickly went to the lead and stayed there, despite a pack of contenders closing in behind him, to capture the 150th Belmont Stakes by a length and three-quarters and become the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Justify completed the mile and a half on a (finally) fast track in 2 minutes 28.18 seconds to become the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, along with Seattle Slew in 1977, and reward his backers with $3.60 on a $2 bet to win. A motoring Gronkowski, in a bit of a surprise (except maybe to New England Patriots fans), came from last place to finish second and paid $13.80 to place. Hofburg was third.
“The great ones, they just find another gear,” Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said, adding, “If he was great, he’s going to do it, and that’s what it’s about.”
After the race, Smith and Justify went off, around the clubhouse turn, to have a quiet moment. Smith, who had earned the nickname Big Money Mike but had never won horse racing’s most coveted prize, was moved to tears. How did he land this horse, who did not race as a 2-year-old, who rattled off six straight victories in about four months, who carried Smith beyond even his wildest dreams?
But Smith had to gather himself because he wanted to bring Justify back to the fans, who stood and cheered and snapped pictures as he took a victory lap past the expansive Belmont Park grandstand.
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” Smith said while flashing his customary wide grin. “He’s so gifted; he was sent from heaven. I can’t even begin to describe my emotions right now.”
Baffert, 65, seemed to keep his composure as he walked to the winner’s circle, stopping to pat Ron Turcotte, the jockey for Secretariat, the ninth Triple Crown champion, on the back. But inside he was battling emotions as he became only the second trainer to secure two Triple Crowns, joining James Fitzsimmons, who was known as Sunny Jim and trained Gallant Fox and Omaha in the 1930’s.
“American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love,” Baffert said, “but, man, for this horse to do it.”
Still, the Belmont was Justify’s sixth race since mid-February, and his previous two had come on sloppy tracks, surely taking a toll. He seemed to have recovered nicely from a hoof bruise after the Derby, but this mile-and-a-half race — the Test of the Champion — can expose even the most bulletproof horses.
Justify’s next chapter is yet to be written. Before the Preakness, WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing, who owned his breeding rights, agreed to a reported $60 million deal with Coolmore, which stands American Pharoah at stud. There was to be a bonus of about $25 million if Justify won the crown. It is unclear whether he will race again, although his owners said they would consider it.