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Justify, commanding winner of Saturday's Belmont Stakes and with it American Thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown, will forever have moons of numbers orbiting his planetary
The son of the late Scat Daddy, out of Stage Magic, a daughter of the you-should-have-seen-him fast Ghostzapper, won the 150th Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown Champion, the second in three years after 2015's American Pharoah. He's the second undefeated horse to take the Crown, after 1977's Seattle Slew, and the first horse ever to win it without racing at two-years-old.
Bob Baffert is the second trainer to sweep the Triple Crown, after Jim "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, who did it with 1930's Gallant Fox and 1935's Omaha. The trainers both did their Crowns consecutively.
As post time approached, the obvious shouted as super trainer Bob Baffert, who also trained 'Pharoah, seemed to have a certain calm about him, and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith might have been floating off the floor when he said he couldn't wait to get the race started.
As it turned out, it was a perfect storm of breeding, training and riding.
The weather good with sunshine battling for the upper hand, historic Belmont Park was in all its glory, in marked contrast to the monsoon at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby and more rain and sock-in fog at Baltimore's Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes.
If Justify's break was less than perfect, as some said, he corrected it in about a step-and-a-half.
"He was leaning back when the gate opened," Smith said.
Like a gaggle of teenagers snickering off to the side, six of the others ganged up forwardly, two or three of them nosing in front of Justify, who simply kept to his mission on the rail. Baffert's other horse, Restoring Hope, jumped up to the "lead," albeit veering out to at least the eight path. He came back in at the start of the first turn and pretty much ran interference for Justify most of the way. By then, Justify had a lead he would never lose.
The first quarter clocked in at 23.37, nice but not burning, which meant Smith and Justify had all the control of the pace they could desire. With a :48 half and 1:13 and one at the half, Justify was in full command of the pace. He finished in 2:28 and one, just over four seconds slower than Secretariat's record 2:24 flat.
Restoring Hope stuck with him, left eye to Justify's right haunch. Justify was running exactly the way he needed to, body fully extended, white-blazed head way out in front, taking full advantage of his long stride of champions, his tail fully extended and not flickering all that much.
Mid-turn, Restoring Hope shifted into reverse gear as Bravazo, on the rail with no room to pass Justify inside, and Vino Rosso made chase. If Vino' and John Velazquez had any thoughts of truly challenging here, Justify's supremely consistent stride dashed it as he turned a half-length lead into two in a blink.
Concurrently, Hofburg chose the three lane and made his move, just ahead of the turn into the stretch. He didn't have it.
There, lurking on the rail, was the big Gronkowski. If Justify had tired, or hung or otherwise fallen apart . . . but the race was over. Probably decided a mile earlier.
In the stretch, Justify's tail kept waving straight out, its tip doing curlicues like Errol Flynn swordplay in a swashbuckler movie.
Horse and jockey entered the runout pristine, untouched by any blowback by the others at Big Sandy, Smith in the China Racing Club silks of red with yellow stars.
Tale of the tape, Justify prevailed by one and three quarters over a surprising Gronkowski, who ran like the Euro he is, rock down the hill, full momentum at the end. Hofburg was third behind Gronkowski by the same margin. Vino Rosso was fourth. Justify paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80. Gronkowski $13.80 and $7.00, Hofburg $3.70. The exacta paid $89 for two dollars, the Trifecta $114.87 for $.50. The $.10 Superfecta paid $105.15 and the $2 Pick Six $81,026.
I hit the Exacta, figuring Gronkowski, winner of his last four, knew how to win. This may sound funny, but lacking a superhorse like Justify, his style was perfect for the likes of these. He also had trainer Chad Brown in his corner.
In the relative quiet at the head of the backstretch, the screams of the 90,000 fans seemingly far away in the enormous Belmont grandstand finally reaching him over the sparse lawn of the infield, Smith was silent.
Keeping a watchful eye, the outrider said "How good this can be for you brother." Smith, whose facial architecture is pretty much a smile anyway, said "I don't know what to do!" like a kid thinking he got away with something but being told it was okay.
Once NBC's Donna Brothers got to them on her pony, she referenced an earlier feature where the 52-year-old Smith's mother said little Mike might have been riding horses, rocking or otherwise, before he learned to walk.
After praising Jesus, Smith told how he couldn't describe his feelings and then immediately gave a loud shoutout to disabled jockeys and Marlon St. Julien, who was seriously injured in a spill in May at Prairie Meadows.
"Justify was so relaxed in the gate, I was wondering if he was going to break today. I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards at Ruidoso New Mexico. YAY New Mexico," Smith shouted of his home state.
An emotional Baffert admitted he had Triple Crown thoughts about Justify. "He was showing me the same signs (as American Pharoah). The way he was today, he could have won every race on the undercard too."
Where does Justify fit into the pantheon of Triple Crown winners? It's too early to tell.
We've been through the light racing tab argument. As I said a few days ago, Justify is now a legitimately great horse, mainly because he simply did it, compressed his entire career so far into one half-season and won the Belmont in as grand a fashion as you could ask.
He might possibly run only two or three more times. As American Pharoah did, his legacy shines more if he wins the Breeders' Cup Classic. A Whitney, Haskell or Travers win along the way would be huge. Through pure mathematics, he can't be in the same breath as Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed.
On the other hand, Bob Baffert, whose 2012 heart attack in Dubai has humbled him in my opinion, is fully capable of doing it again, given the right horse, which he would be the first to admit. He said more than once that Justify showed him many of the same things 'Pharoah did, primarily intelligence.
While the odds of getting another horse like these are astronomical, Baffert has a better chance than most, success the magnet for the best horses. The same goes for Mike Smith, despite the fact the aggravations on NBC kept saying he's "on the tail end of his career."
Baffert might not get such a horse, but if he does, he'll know it when he sees it.
* I'll keep saying it until they get better. NBC's racing coverage blows peacock feathers.
Mike Tirico is nothing but Admiral Obvious as he reads the same graphics we see with ESPN-honed seriousness. He is infecting Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey down to his level of incompetence.
Did you know Justify was trying to become the 13th Triple Crown winner? Your TV set turned off, you would have known that just by walking by, they said it dozens and dozens of times.
Target B has to be Bob Costas. What did she do to deserve this assignment, Carolyn Manno reported from the Long Island Railroad platform just outside the grandstand to tell us New Yorkers take the train.
"Bob, do you have an LIRR monthly pass?" "No, I'm what you'd call a turnstile jumper, I jump right over the turnstile," he explained, the fuzzy hair hat getting fuzzier. Hey Bob, meet you in St. Louis.
My mind's image is little Bobby, imperceptible in the vast expanses of the limousine's back seat, squeaking to the driver because they're stuck in crosstown Manhattan traffic. "Why aren't we moving?"
They ruined a special moment, damn them to hell.
Showing Baffert running the gauntlet of handshakes and high fives after 'Pharoah's win in 2015, this guy grabs Baffert's shoulder, stops him cold and turns him around. He then finger points to his left. Sitting there was racing legend Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner and protector.
I didn't recognize her, she seemed smaller, but Baffert stopped and backtracked to shake her hand and . . . CUT VIDEO. We never saw what happened. Ms. Chenery passed away last September.
The only good things NBC has done all year were two biographical features about Smith and Baffert.
We learned that when Mike's mother dropped him off at school, he went in through the front door and right down the hallway through the back door where his uncle would take him to the farm.
Baffert's family business was Baffert Farm in Nogales Arizona, relative yards from Mexico, a poultry and egg operation where his father wondered if they should race their quarter horses, simply because they had a few.
Second undefeated since Seattle Slew. How about a feature about the maligned Crown winner Slew who Mt. Rushmored his reputation as a four-year-old.
Howzabout a snippet on Affirmed and Alydar? One of the fiercest rivalries of any kind in the history of sports.
How about a can't-get-enough full replay of Secretariat's historical Belmont?
The people on NBC who know the most about racing are shunted to the background. Tirico doesn't know and doesn't give a shit about horse racing, stars in his eyes when he does the promo about Dale Earnhardt joining the NASCAR announcing team. Wouldn't you think that, knowing his assignment to the upcoming Triple Crown, he would do some homework, bone up? He doesn't care. For the money they pay him, he deserves Tuesday night radio in the Midwest League.
* As hammered home by Daily Racing Form's national handicapper Mike Watchmaker, the structure of the Triple Crown does not need changing, as so many knuckleheads, for the selfish aggrandizement of their own massive egos and self-satisfaction strongly suggested just a few years ago. Including long-time turf writers.
One of the big arguments was that because today's horses are so lightly raced, there would never be another Triple Crown horse. And, DAMMIT, I DESERVE my Triple Crown(!) was the tantrum.
Well, we now have two in three years.
I've never subscribed to the theory that "Boy, does that Johnny Pigskin or Trey Gunnar deserve a championship." Often because they've simply been around a long time. No. If all circumstances are right and you work and act accordingly when the time comes, great. Enjoy it. You give every NFL or NBA team entry into the playoffs, and it's still the same old LeBrons or Patriots.
In racing, it's all about the horses, folks. You get one, you try. You have one, go for it. Nobody owes anyone anything.
It's the same with Justify and 'Pharoah. They are the horses to do it. Truly wondrous horses have tried and failed. You don't dare dream of a Triple Crown. If you're a fan, you just hope you're there when it happens.
And then enjoy it. A lot.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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