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Justify may not be in the top three of Triple Crown winners, but his unusual run-up to immortality shows his greatness

Justify breaks quickly at the start of the 150th Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Photo Credit: PETER FOLEY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The weather broke perfectly and so did Justify from the rail as the chestnut colt chased and defied Triple Crown history around Belmont Park’s mile and a half track on Saturday. Two times in the slop in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and now on a fast and firm track, Bob Baffert’s giant of a thoroughbred launched himself near the top of his sport’s pantheon of immortals.

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The weather broke perfectly and so did Justify from the rail as the chestnut colt chased and defied Triple Crown history around Belmont Park’s mile and a half track on Saturday. Two times in the slop in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and now on a fast and firm track, Bob Baffert’s giant of a thoroughbred launched himself near the top of his sport’s pantheon of immortals.

Justify is not Secretariat, Citation or Seattle Slew, the greatest three Triple Crown winners, in that order, of the elite group of 13. But he might just be a length or two behind in fourth, perhaps beating out Affirmed by a nose.

Naturally, Mike Smith, who at 52 became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, has an elevated opinion of his horse.

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“Are you asking me?” Smith said, smiling. “I think he’s the greatest of all time. I just won a Triple Crown, man. He’s my champion.”

Fair to say, no Triple Crown champion has ever navigated the path Justify did.

Until the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, no horse had ever completed a Triple Crown in only six career starts, as Justify has done. American Pharoah, the last Triple Crown winner in 2015 and also a Baffert horse, needed seven career starts. Seattle Slew, in 1977, did it in eight.

Justify also joins Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown champions.

To Baffert, comparing his horses is like asking him to name a favorite child.

“He is just one of the all-time great horses and I’m just thankful that we were able to pull it off,” Baffert said. “I’ve never had a horse when I unloaded him the other day, those horses in that barn went nuts when they saw him. They just know his presence. There’s something about him.”

Most impressively, Justify didn’t make his debut until Feb. 18, breaking his maiden with a 9 1/2-length win at Santa Anita. When he won at rainy Churchill Downs on May 5 by 2 1/2 lengths, he became the first Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 not to have run as a 2-year-old. He also navigated the rain and dense fog at Pimlico on May 19 for a half-length win in the Preakness.

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It all culminated in front of a sold-out crowd of 90,327 on a 79-degree Saturday, sunny all morning and early afternoon and then just the right kind of overcast as post time approached, with Justify exuding confidence in the paddock. It must have rubbed off as Baffert, the second trainer after Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons to saddle two Triple Crown winners, told Smith he had a full tank of gas, just don’t burn it too quickly.

Smith, in no surprise, provided a brilliant ride.

He coaxed Justify easily to the lead from post 1 and went wire to wire, holding off Gronkowski by 1 3/4 lengths in a less-than-blistering 2:28.18.

The first quarter was a fast 23.37 that settled into a much more relaxed 48.11 at the half-mile pole.

But it wasn’t the time that marked Justify’s genius. It was his gait. A comfortable, easy gait that teased any horse that tried to inch closer to him. Restoring Hope, a 37-1 shot that eventually finished eighth in the 10-horse field, challenged early and ran second through the mile pole before fading. Gronkowski, at 24-1, made up ground late.

But there was never really any doubt that this was Justify’s race.

Between the horse and the always-smiling jockey, neither might have broken a sweat the whole trip.

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Understand, Justify is a giant at 16.3 hands and a hefty 1,380 pounds, but his form is equal parts impressive strength and sublime beauty.

A thundering ballerina.

The legendary Secretariat set track records in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness then wrote the definition of a rout with a 31-length win in the Belmont in a mind-boggling track record of 2:24.

Citation won the three legs of the Triple Crown by a combined 17 lengths. Seattle Slew’s impressive credentials already have been listed.

Despite Smith’s understandable enthusiasm, Justify doesn’t crack the top three.

But Justify is at least the equal of, if not better than, Affirmed, who, in 1978, won all three legs by decreasingly slim margins over Alydar.

Time, of course, ultimately will judge Justify’s place in Triple Crown history.

But just as it’s inconceivable any horse will ever match Secretariat’s greatness, the odds are slim another horse will navigate the run-up to the Triple Crown and the three legs quite the same as Justify.