The roar began building as Justify rounded the far turn, and it amped up as the flashy chestnut colt with the white blaze turned into Belmont Park’s stretch. He had led comfortably all the way, but closers Vino Rosso and Gronkowski were making their moves.
Many had predicted Justify would tire, that the strain of six races in less than four months would crack him in the 1 ½-mile marathon. As he found another gear in upper stretch, the naysayers knew they were wrong, and Saturday’s 150th Belmont Stakes became a raucous coronation.
Gronkowski, a 24-1 shot who was a distant last on the backstretch, was surging under Jose Ortiz, but the 4-5 favorite never was in danger. The colt named for and partly owned by Patriots star Rob Gronkowski was terrific in his North American debut and his first race on dirt. But the four-legged Gronk couldn’t get near Justify, who beat him by 1 ¾ lengths. And so this big red train became an immortal, the 13th thoroughbred to earn a Triple Crown.
The cheers of 90,327 rocked Belmont as jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert tried to let the ultimate New York moment sink in.
“I don’t know what to do,” said the 52-year-old Smith, nicknamed “Big Money Mike” for winning so many megabucks stakes. “You’re the man,” he told Justify.
The oldest rider to win a Triple Crown took off his helmet, bounced in the saddle and raised his arms as he guided Justify toward the winner’s circle, where an ovation saluted them.
“He ran a tremendous race, he’s so brilliant,” Smith said. “He’s come from heaven. Did you see him standing so still? He was standing so calmly in the gate, I actually thought, ‘He’s not going to break today.’ Then he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico.”
Baffert, master of the one-liner, wasn’t speechless, but the words weren’t coming easily. Why humans get teary when they are overjoyed is a mystery, but this peak experience was too much to process immediately.
“It’s just amazing. It never gets old,” Baffert said after his second Triple Crown in four years. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons is the only other trainer with two Triple Crowns, winning with Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935). Baffert’s victory was his record 15th in a Triple Crown race, one more than D. Wayne Lukas.
“It’s very emotional for me,’’ Baffert said. “He was showing me the same signs of being a superior horse as American Pharoah did, and he proved he is one.”
There’s absolutely no doubt about that, because this triumph was historic on many levels. Justify is the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in his sixth start, and the only one who never ran as a 2-year-old. He’s the second to be unbeaten, joining Seattle Slew (1977).
He even surpassed Pharoah, whom Baffert guided to the 2015 Triple Crown, the first since Affirmed in 1978.
“American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love,” said Baffert, but somehow the platinum-haired wizard produced a beast who is better.
Starting in 2006, American Pharoah had been the only Belmont champion to run in the Preakness. Coming back in three weeks was no problem for Justify. He trained brilliantly at Churchill Downs, and last week Baffert’s longtime assistant, Jimmy Barnes, said he was “breathing fire.”
It still burned brightly. Justify, from post 1, shot to the lead immediately and sprinted a quarter-mile in a quick 23.37 seconds. Then Smith gave him a breather by going a half-mile in a moderate 48.11. He got the third quarter in a leisurely 25.10, guaranteeing he would have plenty of juice for the final six furlongs.
His lead was two lengths after a mile in a slow 1:38.09, two after 1 ¼ miles in 2:02.90, and still two at the furlong pole. Race over. The final time was 2:28.18, far off Secretariat’s 1973 record of 2:24, but nobody cared. Justify paid $3.60 and earned $800,000 of the $1.5-million purse, raising his total to $3,798,000 for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing.
Gronkowski was 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Hofburg, with Vino Rosso a neck farther back. Behind them came Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
“For Justify to win six races in such a short amount of time is just an unbelievable feat on his part,” Smith said. “Bob has done a tremendous job to do what we just got done doing. Extremely excited, very, very blessed. This is just amazing.”