If you’ve just tuned into racing this Triple Crown season after taking a post-Breeders’ Cup break, you may have heard a new name on the scene—Justify.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has become the center of attention in recent days as he attempts to become the 13th Triple Crown winner and second one for trainer Bob Baffert. But who is this big chestnut superstar, why has he seemed to just appear on the scene, and why is everything he’s doing so impressive?
Justify comes from the second-to-last crop of Coolmore’s Scat Daddy, who made history this year when becoming the first sire to have four runners in one Kentucky Derby field. But until 29 days before the race, it wasn’t even known if Justify would make it to the Kentucky Derby.
The colt had looked impressive in his first two starts when winning by a combined 16 lengths but the step up to stakes company can be a tough one. A lot was on the line for Justify when Baffert decided to enter him in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, one of the final prep races for the Kentucky Derby and the only chance he’d have to qualify for a Run for the Roses.
Taking on a top horse like Bolt d’Oro in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby is a big task for any horse, let alone one stepping up to stakes competition for the first time. Especially when it is only 49 days and two races after his debut.
But such was the esteem that Justify was held in that he went off as the favorite in a race that has produced three classic race winners in the past six years. That faith was paid off when he showed he was the real deal by taking command early on and winning by three lengths.
Since then, Justify has thrived at the highest level of racing even as new challenges have been tossed at him.
At the Kentucky Derby, the colt didn’t just have to face a crowd of over 150,000 for the first time but also had to handle a cross country flight followed quickly by a race. His mental state throughout the week and the Derby day action itself showed that he could easily pass the calmness test.
The next day, a slight injury later diagnosed as a foot bruise looked like it may slow down the Justify train with less than two weeks until the Preakness Stakes. But just like the rest of his career to this point, Justify’s story continued in story tale fashion as he healed up after just a few days and continued on his merry way.
The Kentucky Derby set records for being the wettest Derby in history with over two inches of rain falling at the track on the first Saturday in May. Not to be outdone, Maryland kept up the trend of wacky weather during Preakness week.
While heavy rain had fallen off and on at Pimlico Race Course all week, by the time the Preakness rolled around the rain he had faced in the past was replaced with the challenge of dense fog. The race callers seemed to be more inconvenienced by the weather than the horses with Justify battling with champion 2-year-old Good Magic nearly all the way around the oval. Breaking away from that rival in the late stages of the stretch as jockey Mike Smith started easing up on him near the wire, Justify became the first horse since American Pharoah in 2015 to head to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.
While Justify becomes the 24th Triple Crown hopeful headed to New York, he’s different in a few different ways.
First, Justify became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing at 2. To put that into perspective, 63 horses have attempted that feat since 1937 with three finishing second and five others finishing third – including two-time Horse of the Year Curlin.
Second, he went from first-time starter to Triple Crown hopeful in 91 days in a crop widely believed to be the best since 2007 going from maiden to three-time Grade 1 winner in five starts. In the United States, many horses at his level only make around as many starts as he’s already made in a year (last year’s Horse of the Year Gun Runner made six last year while another top male in Arrogate made five with champion 3-year-old colt West Coast made slightly more at nine).
Third, he’s had a bit of everything thrown at him. In his five different starts, he’s run in multiple different conditions and exceled at all of them. From sunny to foggy and muddy, weather doesn’t bother him and he’s run in three different states in various regions of the country and hasn’t turned a hair at the shipping or the crowds in any location.
While the odds look in his favor on June 9, admittedly there are some concerns. His sire Scat Daddy is known more as sprint/miler sire, though Justify has proved that he can easily get the 1¼ miles of the Derby so stamina doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. While everything he has done in 91 days has been extremely impressive, it also begs the question of if he’ll have that extra bit of energy he may need to hold off fresher horses in the Belmont.
There’s also the atmosphere to consider. Justify dealt with a lot of commotion the weeks of his Triple Crown races and handled it extremely well. However, that during Belmont week will almost certainly be crazier with a Triple Crown on the line. He’s handled everything extremely well up until this point but his lack of seasoning could be a worry in the added pressure environment of Belmont Park.
If you’re curious about what Justify looks like in person, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. where he is stabled is opening their doors to the public every day during his special training time at 7:30 a.m. and live streaming his daily training at kentuckyderby.com/works. Baffert will be shipping Justify to Belmont the Wednesday before the race, just like he did with American Pharoah.