John Clay

Justify’s brief but amazingly bright career isn’t likely to be matched

What did Kentucky basketball players think of seeing Triple Crown winner Justify?

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari took his players to see Triple Crown winner Justify on Wednesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. What did the players think of the champion racehorse?
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari took his players to see Triple Crown winner Justify on Wednesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. What did the players think of the champion racehorse?

Turns out, Justify was a shooting star, his trail brief but bright across the horse racing landscape, a champion who appeared and disappeared quickly.

The ownership group, led by WinStar Farm in Versailles, along with trainer Bob Baffert announced Wednesday that the Triple Crown champion has been retired from racing.

The announcement was not a surprise. The 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy had not put in a serious work since before winning the Belmont Stakes on June 9 in New York. He had been taken out of training two weeks ago so that Baffert and the owners could have the filling in Justify’s left front ankle checked out and see how it responded to treatment.

Justify was already going to miss Sunday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. And Baffert had indicated he did not believe there was enough time to prepare the Kentucky Derby winner for the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 25.

There was still a flicker of hope Justify might make the Breeders’ Cup, to be held Nov. 2-3 at Churchill Downs. But the colt would have probably needed a prep race along the way. That scenario proved too risky.

So Wednesday’s announcement is a disappointment for Churchill, which hoped to see Justify back in Louisville in time for the Classic. After all, American Pharoah followed his historic Triple Crown run in 2015 — the first colt to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since 1978 — by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland to complete a 3-year-old grand slam.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari took his players to see Triple Crown winner Justify on Wednesday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. What did the players think of the champion racehorse?

Justify is not American Pharoah, however. We can argue which one is better, but there is no denying Justify was different. A late bloomer whose development was slowed by a some minor ailments, Justify didn’t make his racing debut until Feb. 18. A mere 111 days later, he was a perfect 6-for-6, the first to go unraced as a 2-year-old and win the Derby since Apollo in 1882; the first ever to win the Triple Crown without racing at 2, and the first unbeaten Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Slew lost his first post-Triple Crown start when he finished fourth in the Swap Stakes at Hollywood Park. Fellow Triple Crown champions Secretariat (1973), Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015) all lost races after winning the Belmont. Who knows, perhaps Justify would have finally tasted defeat had he returned to the track.

Alas, because he did not race beyond the American classics, or against older horses, it’s hard to judge exactly where Justify fits in the discussion of the sport’s all-time greats. Still, his brief body of work, in such a short amount of time, is remarkable. Colts are not supposed to start their careers that late and have any chance at winning the roses on the first Saturday in May, much less the Triple Crown.

One day after winning the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, Justify looked bright and alert. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt would return to Louisville, but there are no set plans for his next possible race.

Instead, Justify triumphed via superior talent and a remarkable trainer. (We shouldn’t leave out jockey Mike Smith, either.) No one is better at getting a horse ready for a big race than the 65-year-old Baffert, who has now won 15 Triple Crown races and trained two Triple Crown champions — at a time when people seriously wondered if that feat had become too difficult for the modern racehorse.

Give credit, as well, to WinStar owner Kenny Troutt and CEO Elliott Walden, who purchased Justify, put together the ownership group involving the China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and SF Bloodstock, then ultimately shipped him to Baffert in California.

Now Justify appears headed to Coolmore, where he may join American Pharoah at Ashford Stud. In Wednesday’s release, Walden indicated the deal would be finalized at a later date. Before his stallion career begins, Justify will be back home at WinStar.

So, as a racehorse, how good was Justify? Good enough to be one of just 13 horses to win the Triple Crown. Special enough to accomplish that feat in a way no other colt has done. Short but sweet. That will be Justify’s legacy. There may never be another Thoroughbred like him.

Justify race-by-race

DateTrackRaceFinishTop three
Feb. 18, 2018Santa AnitaMaiden Special Weight1Justify, Camby, Paddock
Mar. 11, 2018Santa AnitaAllowance Optional Claiming1Justify, Shivermetimbers, Pepe Tono
April 7, 2018Santa AnitaSanta Anita Derby (G1)1Justify, Bolt d’Oro, Core Beliefs
May 5, 2018Churchill DownsKentucky Derby (G1)1Justify, Good Magic, Audible
May 19, 2018PimlicoPreakness Stakes (G1)1Justify, Bravazo, Tenfold
June 9, 2018Belmont ParkBelmont Stakes (G1)1Justify, Gronkowski, Hofburg
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