Trainer Bob Baffert, who ended a 37-year Triple Crown wait with American Pharoah in 2015, returned to New York today and took another horse into the pantheon of American racing.
Justify extended his unbeaten career record to six out of six in the Gr. 1 Belmont Stakes, becoming the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner. Only one of his predecessors, Seattle Slew (1977), completed the Triple Crown with an unblemished record.
With rider Mike Smith wearing the red-and-yellow colours of part-owners the China Horse Club, Justify went straight to the lead from his inside gate and never surrendered his advantage.
After sprinting a fast first 400 metres in less than 24 seconds, the Scat Daddy colt eased into a smooth rhythm down the back of the big Belmont Park racetrack.
The pursuers crept closer approaching the home turn, headed by Vino Rosso, Hofburg and Gronkowski, but Justify kicked away the top of the straight and the sell-out crowd started to roar.
Gronkowski and Hofburg chased bravely, but they were never going to catch Justify. He crossed the finish line a length and three-quarters clear, clocking 2:28.18 for the 12 furlongs (2400m).
“It’s just amazing,” said Baffert, who became the second trainer in history to win two Triple Crowns. Jim Fitzsimons did it with Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).
“It’s a very emotional moment for me. American Pharoah will always be my first love, but for this horse to do it too – it never gets old.”
Justify made his debut less than four months ago, and when he won last month’s Kentucky Derby in his fourth start he became the first horse since 1882 to do so without having raced as a two-year-old.
“He was showing some of the same signs as Pharoah from very early,” Baffert said. “Both of them were just such superior horses. This horse could have won any race on the card here today.”
Bred by the father-daughter team of John and Tanya Gunther and raced by the China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm, Justify has earned more than US$3.79 million in his whirlwind six-start career.
Runner-up Gronkowski ran a commendable race, coming from the tail of the field in his first start on a dirt track. Previously trained in England, he is by Australian stallion Lonhro.