Jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert had a plan. Break quickly, establish early position and then slow the pace. It’s called waiting in front, a strategy that often wins the Belmont Stakes.
Justify cooperated perfectly, which is why he cruised to a 1¾-length victory Saturday at Belmont Park and became the 13th Triple Crown champion.
Justify zipped the first quarter-mile in 23.37 seconds, too quick a pace to maintain if he was going to stay 1½ miles in the “Test of the Champion.” Once Smith turned his nine overmatched opponents into chasers, he had them where he wanted them.
The key was getting Justify to slow down for the next half-mile. After a second quarter in a more sensible 24.74 seconds, Justify was getting into a comfort zone. That made anybody who bet against him very uncomfortable.
The race basically was decided after Smith was able to do the third quarter in a slow 25.10 seconds. After 6 furlongs in 1:13.21, the race was half over. Once Justify had a two-length lead after a mile in a slow 1:38.09, it was over.
The bids by Vino Rosso, and then runner-up Gronkowski, injected a bit of excitement, but at no point did it look as if the 4-5 favorite was going to be challenged seriously. He never was.
“He left the gate very, very good, which was very important,” Smith said. “The first quarter was just a little bit quick. I was able to go ahead and get a comfortable lead and just let him get into that rhythm of his, which he did very well.”
Baffert’s main concern was a poor start, as it always is.
“I knew if I jumped well, he’s just faster than they are,” Smith said. “After that first quarter he settled down and got into that great rhythm. I just kept a leg on each side at that point and my head in the middle, and when I asked him, he dug in.”
Trainers speak of a horse having a great mind, which doesn’t refer to equine IQ. One who is calm, learns easily and doesn’t fight his rider is the ideal mount. Justify always has been that way.
“When I saw the 23 [first quarter], I thought, ‘Boy, that’s fast,’ ‘’ Baffert said. “When I saw 48, I felt a little bit better. Then turning for home, like all the great ones, he found another gear.”