by Teresa A. Genaro
Not that long ago, observers of Thoroughbred racing thought that, given changes in breeding and the way horses are campaigned, the Triple Crown couldn’t be won. Major figures in the sport mused aloud about whether the races should be spaced farther apart, or perhaps the distances changed.
To that, American Pharoah and JUSTIFY say: Not so fast.
After waiting 37 years for a horse to win the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness Stakes (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1), racing fans have now enjoyed that achievement twice in four years, both with horses trained by Bob Baffert, bringing to mind the flurry of Triple Crowns in earlier decades: three in the 1930s, four in the 1940s, three in the 1970s.
Despite the facility with which Justify won his first five races, there were no shortage of people who thought he could be beaten at Belmont Park on Saturday. He’d run more races in a shorter period of time than any of his Belmont Stakes rivals; he hadn’t run as a two-year-old; he’d drawn the one-hole.
And he had plenty of supporters, too, enough to send him to the post as the 4-5 favorite, and he rewarded them with another sublime performance in which he dictated the race, established a rhythm, led the other nine horses on a not-so-merry chase, and effortlessly thwarted any challenges.
He and Mike Smith broke smoothly from their inside post, making the lead through a quick first quarter in :23.37, then slowed the pace down while remaining ahead of Restoring Hope and Bravazo. Relaxed and unthreatened, Justify clicked off reasonable fractions of :48.11, 1:13.21, 1:38.09 and 2:02.90, yet no other rival came up to pressure him. So, around the big Belmont oval he went, a gate-to-wire winner, gliding into racing’s history books in a final time of 2:28.18 for 1 1/2 miles on the fast track.
“Bob has helped me achieve so many of my goals,” 52-year-old Smith said, “but today he made my dream come true.”
Perhaps as impressive as Justify’s race was the runner-up finish by Gronkowski, who went off at 25-1 and was largely dismissed by bettors – and with good reason: the horse had never run in the United States; he had never run on dirt; he had never run more than a mile.
To such considerations, Gronkowski said: Watch me.
At first, viewers couldn’t. He was so far behind in last that he was barely on the screen, and with all eyes on Justify, it was easy to miss his stealthy creep up the rail until he had nearly reached the eventual winner. Though he had to settle for second, he proved that he’s indeed a horse to be reckoned with on U.S. soil.
Gronkowski was followed home by Hofburg, Vino Rosso, Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.
Though the pre-race buzz was quieter than it was in 2015, a robust – but not sold-out – crowd crowd descended on Belmont Park, and when Justify won, the tens of thousands of spectators roared with appreciation and excitement and exultation. They didn’t seem to care that the same feat had been accomplished just three years ago.
They cared that they saw it today.