The horse was the star of the show, of course, but Justify had all the support he needed to become the 13th Triple Crown winner, which he did Saturday with his victory over second-place Gronkowski in the Belmont Stakes.
“Grateful to have a horse like this,’’ Elliott Walden, one of Justify’s owners, said after the 3-year-old went wire-to-wire in 2:28.18 to become the second horse in four years to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont.
“To have the opportunity to be here, to make history like this, is an incredible feeling, and these horses . . . you buy them, or whatever — a horse like this, just kind of happens.’’
Walden, President and CEO of the Windstar syndicate that owns Justify, praised trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith for pushing the horse to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. Smith, 52, became the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown, and Baffert, who also trained American Pharoah when he won the Triple Crown in 2015, became the second trainer with two Triple Crown winners.
Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935 to Triple Crowns, is the other.
Baffert, 65, has trained five Kentucky Derby winners, seven Preakness Stakes winners and three Belmont winners. Before American Pharoah, he had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown three times, with Silver Charm, in 1997, Real Quiet (1998) and Point Given (2001) and failed to complete the feat before American Pharoah did it to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, since Affirmed in 1978. Now, there have been two Triple Crown winners in the last four years, and Baffert has trained them both.
“I really didn’t think about that,’’ Baffert said. “It’s a privilege to have a horse like this. I mean . . . we’re like the coach, but they’re the athletes and the jockeys get it done. But to me, when you win the Derby five times, I really felt like, ‘Wow, I won the Derby!’ But this is more to me. I wanted to see that horse, his name up there with those greats. If they’re great, they’re going to win the Triple Crown.’’
Walden, who hadn’t had a horse with Baffert before, was asked why he decided to give him Justify.
“I get asked a lot how we move our horses around and why we give horses to certain trainers,’’ he said. “A lot of it’s just kind of a gut feel about each horse. As far as this horse goes, one of the things that I thought was important was we’re behind the 8-ball. We do focus on the 3-year-old classics. Not that every horse we have is going to run there, but you certainly want to try to give him an opportunity. The weather in California [where Baffert is based] is very consistent; [Justify] was going into training late; I thought that was something that was a consideration. And . . . he looked like a very good horse, and we tried to hire a very good trainer.
“Maybe the best of all time.’’
Baffert was asked to compare Justify to American Pharoah.
“I’ve had some really great horses,’’ he said. “We had Point Given, I really thought he could have easily been here [as a Triple Crown winner]. Horses like that were — the durability, that’s the thing, and that’s one thing this horse has, American Pharoah has, is not only are they brilliant, they’re fast, but they’re durable.
“But they’re two different types. It’s like comparing your kids — which one is faster? But you know, Pharoah was my first Triple Crown winner.’’
Baffert said he was “in awe’’ of Pharoah when he won, and “in shock’’ seeing him win. Justify was different.
“When we came with this horse, when he won his second time out, I was thinking, ‘I think this is a Derby horse; he could be a Triple Crown horse, man. I’ll get another shot.’’’
Baffert at Belmont
Justify is trainer Bob Baffert’s fifth horse who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. How his Triple Crown tries turned out:
Year Horse Finish
2018 Justify 1st
2015 American Pharoah 1st
2002 War Emblem 8th
1998 Real Quiet 2nd
1997 Silver Charm 2nd