June 9 (UPI) — Justify was never seriously challenged as he led all the way to win Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, becoming the 13th winner of the Triple Crown and only the second ever to do so while still undefeated.
Trainer Bob Baffert scored his second Triple Crown win, following American Pharoah in 2015. Jockey Mike Smith said he now feels, “I belong” in the Hall of Fame.
The biggest concern as Justify lined by for his try at history was his inside post position. A bad start could compromise his race plan. It turned out to be no problem. After standing quietly while his nine rivals were loaded, Justify blasted out of the gate as if on a spring.
“He left there like he was going 440 (yards) at Ruidoso, N.M.,” said Smith, a native of Roswell, N.M.
On the lead, the chestnut son of Scat Daddy looked a winner every step of the 1 1/2 miles in “The Test of a Champion.” He finished comfortably ahead of Gronkowski, who started as an extreme long shot as the winner of the “European Road to the Kentucky Derby.” Hofburg was third and Vino Rosso finished fourth.
Baffert’s tied Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons as the only trainer to saddle two Triple Crown winners. He also took the lead as the winner of the most Triple Crown races. He had expressed cautious confidence in the lead up to the race, saying afterward he was impressed Justify had “showed that brilliance. He’s a superior horse. He could have won every race on the undercard today.”
Kenny Troutt, owner of WinStar Farm accepted the newly designed Triple Crown trophy with Teo Ah King, the founder of China Horse Club. Troutt admitted, “Yes, I did have butterflies down the stretch.”
After running over sloppy tracks in the first two jewels of the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes — Justify had a fast strip at Belmont Park and got home in 2:28.18.
Justify did not begin his career until Feb. 18 and won his first two starts easily at Santa Anita. Baffert then threw him right into the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, which he won by 3 lengths. That was good enough to make him the favorite at Churchill Downs, where he won by 2 1/2 lengths.
Two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Justify emerged from a fog bank with the lead at the top of the stretch but just did manage to hold on to the advantage, winning by 1/2 length over Bravazo, who faded in the late going in the Belmont and did finished sixth.
Justify ran in the colors of the China Horse Club, which owns the chestnut colt in a partnership with WinStar Farm and others. The victory put a huge exclamation point behind the China Horse Club’s recent emergence on the American racing scene, which also included a victory in last year’s Kentucky Oaks.
Baffert did not discuss next steps for Justify, who is due for a rest after three tough races in five weeks. But American Pharoah went on later in his championship season to land the “Grand Slam” — a Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic.