A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Justify wins the Belmont Stakes and captures the Triple Crown, cementing Mike Smith’s legacy

By Mark Hansel
KyForward managing editor

Justify took the Belmont Stakes in wire-to-wire fashion at Belmont Park Saturday, securing U.S. thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown and giving Hall-of-Fame jockey Mike Smith one of the few prizes that had eluded him in his illustrious career.

The backdrop for Justify’s win in the Belmont Saturday was much different from his win in the slop five weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Down (photo by Mark Hansel).

“This horse ran a tremendous race. He’s so gifted, he’s sent from heaven,” Smith said. “He’s just brilliant.”

Justify, trained by Hall-of-Famer Bob Baffert, became only the second horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978. American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert, accomplished the feat in 2015.

“This never gets old,” Baffert said. “American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love. For (Justify) to do it for (jockey) Mike Smith, he deserved something like this.”

American Pharoah captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic later in 2015 and is the only horse to win both that race and the Triple Crown.

The Breeders’ Cup was first conducted in 1984, six years after Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

If Justify remains fit and healthy, he will have an opportunity to match that task at the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the track where his Triple Crown quest began, in November.

Sent off as the overwhelming 4/5 favorite and breaking from post position No. 1, Smith sent Justify to the front right out of the gate.

With stablemate Restoring Hope racing outside and ensuring clear sailing, Justify cranked out a fast first quarter mile in  23.37 seconds, but slowed things down to 48.11, for the 1/2 mile.

After that Justify maintained a steady pace throughout the race and was never seriously threatened, although Gronkowski rallied from last in a rail skimming trip to finish second at 24-1.

The connections of Justify speak to reporters after his win in the Kentucky Derby, when their Triple Crown dreams were just beginning (photo by Mark Hansel).

Justify finished the 1 1/2-mile race over the Elmont, New York, oval in a somewhat pedestrian 2:28.18, but the lack of a challenger may have contributed to the slow time.

Hofburg, the “wise-guy” horse, many thought could pose a threat to Justify, finished third in the first of this year’s Triple Crown races run on a dry, fast track. Both the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Preakness at PImlico were run over sloppy courses.

“He is a superior horse,” Baffert said after the race. “He could have won every race on the undercard today, he’s just that kind of horse.”

Smith had won the individual Triple Crown races and was the regular rider for the great Zenyatta, but the Triple Crown had eluded him until Saturday.

At 52, he is the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown.

When inducted into Horse Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003, Smith said he wasn’t sure he had accomplished enough to be there. After the Belmont he was asked by NBC’s Donna Brothers if his wins aboard Justify changed that, he said, “Yeah, I belong now.”

Justify became the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby while not racing as a two-year-old and is only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. Seattle Slew accomplished that feat in 1977.

Justify is owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

Related Posts

Leave a Comment