July 23, 2018

Ankle concerns could spell end of Justify’s career

Justify with Mike Smith up wins the 150th Belmont Stakes (G1) and sweeps the 2018 Triple Crown at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 9, 2018 (c) Photos by Z

Tuesday’s announcement brought somber news: Triple Crown winner Justify will undergo an evaluation due to filling in his ankle. It’s all speculation presently but his racing career appears over.

Connections never committed to racing Justify again but left the option open following his crowning victory in the June 9 Belmont Stakes. The key to identifying intentions would be Justify’s presence on the worktab. A Triple Crown winner with enormous stud value won’t be put back in serious training unless connections are committed to future racing.

Justify followed the same work pattern this spring as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who was also trained by Bob Baffert. Both breezed the weekend prior to the Kentucky Derby and logged a pair of workouts on the same days in advance of the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah returned to the worktab 23 days (June 29) after his Triple Crown sweep and Thoroughbred racing fans had been anxiously waiting for nearly two weeks to see Justify’s reappearance.

His absence left Baffert fielding questions about workout plans and something had to give to escape the limbo. Tuesday’s press release identified Justify’s left front ankle as the culprit.

It’s only mid-July and if Justify receives a clean bill of health, the chestnut colt could still theoretically make it back this fall, utilizing a prep race in advance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 3. But Baffert would need plenty of preparation time (American Pharoah received six works in advance of his first start back) and that seems unlikely at this point.

It’s easy to envision connections adopting the stance that keeping Justify in training represents more risk than reward for a horse who avoided any setbacks squeezing six magnificent starts into a 111-day window earlier this year.

If his career is over, Justify will retire as the only undefeated winner of the American Triple Crown. He became the first unraced juvenile to win the Kentucky Derby in 136 years and displayed remarkable grit to prevail in the Preakness Stakes despite his inexperience. The son of the late Scat Daddy registered a 114 BRIS Speed rating winning the Santa Anita Derby, the highest number in the six-year history of the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying system.

Justify combined grand speed and stamina into an imposing frame.

His brilliance is undeniable but where Justify ranks will be open to debate. He didn’t have the opportunity to cultivate a larger fan base due to the brevity of his career, with his accomplishments (four Grade 1 stakes wins including the Triple Crown) spanning only two months and Justify never faced older horses.

I was excited for the future because Justify remained eligible to keep improving. He appeared to be still growing into his massive body during the Triple Crown and probably wouldn’t be facing the most formidable group of older horses this fall. Winning out through the Breeders’ Cup Classic would significantly raise any gauge of his greatness.

I would love to be wrong and see Justify race again later this year. But Tuesday’s announcement served as handwriting on the wall that his short but sensational racing campaign has come to an end.

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