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Fedora'd and vested, impeccably complemented and contrasted in a perfect gray with a wealthily spaced pinstripe, Charles Howard gingerly bulled his way through the thicket, guided by the dancing light of the campfire and the smell of its smoke.
Over there was an all-white colt, seemingly with a tree branch growing out of gauze wrapped around his left front leg. Hackles up, but beat down by The Crash's aftermath, quickly instinctually hospitable with a "ya hungry?," the cowboy greeted the stranger, who took a seat on a fireside log.
"What's in his bandage?" Howard asked. "Oh, that's hawthorn root. It increases circulation," Tom Smith answered.
"He gonna get better?" "Already is, a little."
"Will he race?" "No, not that one."
"Why you fixin' him?" "Cuz I can. Every horse is good for somethin'. He could be a cart horse, or a lead pony, and he's still nice to look at. Know, you don't throw a whole life away, just cuz he's banged up a little."
"Is that coffee?" "Yeah. It's bad though."
"You always tell the truth?" "Try to."
The owner and the trainer teamed up and went to unimaginable places with a horse who just needed some patience and a little more time. Given the chance, he soared the Thoroughbred horse racing firmament, capturing the imagination of an America that needed someone just like him right at that moment.
That won't happen in 2018, as we learned this week that Justify, the 13th winner of America's Triple Crown of racing, of all things, has been retired to stud. "Filling in an ankle," a dodge as weak as it is unexplained, was the hook.
An utterance clearly picked from the parts bin of racingspeak, we got this from one of the principal owners. "He is an incredible horse, and we are very disappointed he can't run again," said WinStar Farm owner Kenny Troutt. "All things happen for a reason, and we are blessed to have raced him to be the 13th Triple Crown winner in history." The "things" were to shelf Justify, the "reason" the money, pure and simple.
The real-life true parable of Seabiscuit, in that motion picture depiction of the spirit he as a horse and all the people around him, millions really, had, is most certainly ponderable now. But three bedrock virtues are lost today.
There is no healing for Justify. No healing back to his nature of running, bred into him through the millenia.
His usefulness has been determined to be to make exponentially more money for a sickly large number of greedy people. There's plenty to go around, and they'll get to visit him, if they care to. You and I will never see him again. He's scheduled to parade at Del Mar today. I hope they boo the hell out of the owners and trainer Bob Baffert, for his refusal to speak truth to the money side of the game. If Baffert somehow doesn't think he has the credibility or stature to say something, with everything he has accomplished, then he is complicit.
Truth? Very hard to come by these days. Baffert is saying that Justify would have needed 60-90 days just for recovery, making preparation for the Breeders' Cup Classic impossible. Fair enough, but while we know he wouldn't have raced at four-years-old - even just winning the Kentucky Derby saw to that - the Triple Crown, beyond their wildest expectations, fell into their laps. But Baffert did not even attempt to work out Justify even a month out from the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah, 2015's Crown and Breeders' Cup champion, had as many as six workouts before his next race. Tell us the Crown wore out Justify, or he was headed to stud all along. But the story of a swollen ankle, without any credible reference to believe in, doesn't cut it.
The fan forums are populated with everything from "So long, old friend and thanks for everything," to "He was a lucky flash bum managed by greedy bastards."
Justify didn't race at two-years-old, ostensibly because he pulled a haunch muscle. Or was it because he wasn't ready, or had bad ankles? Therefore, he became the first horse ever to win the Triple Crown without racing at two. He was also the first undefeated horse since Seattle Slew to win the Crown.
These facts struck me as the buttery air inside a puff pastry. Yes, the game has been perverted so much, like nine-pitch relief appearances, that Justify's total lack of foundation would not stand in the way of the ultimate endurance test: the Triple Crown. Blessed with the breeding of sire Scat Daddy and out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, Justify built his foundation as he ran in America's biggest races.
It's worth remembering Ghostzapper's story too. With notoriously bad hooves and feet, Ghostzapper was a top fuel-fast horse who needed tinkering to stay on the track. He never ran in the Triple Crown races, understandable with his sprinter's profile.
Stretching out in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic, he faced some of the best horses of the age in Funny Cide, Birdstone, Pleasantly Perfect, Perfect Drift and the marvelous Roses in May. Ten furlongs later, he'd secured the victory and a 124 Beyer Speed figure, nearly unthinkable in today's racing. But if you subscribe to the theory that infirmities, or deformities, are passed down through today's stick-legged speedsters, you might also wonder if something bad in Justify will also be bred down.
I remember Ghostzapper. He was a destination watch, because you couldn't know when he was going to run. I recall almost literally having to remember to breathe when watching him, he was so fast and beautiful. After the first time I saw him, I never bet a race he was in.
Justify looked impressive in winning all of his grand total of six races, although each was by diminishing lengths from the previous race. He caught typhoons of rain and rivers of mud in the Kentucky Derby, beating by 2+ a Bolt d'Oro clearly not right after the tiring Triple Crown trail. Bolt' actually ran! He caught more rain and fog in the Preakness, and was wire-aided by one-half over a surging Bravazo, who'd have won with another sixteenth. His breeding, the root of all this, helped him dominate the aberrational 12 furlongs of the Belmont Stakes, beating hometowner Vino Rosso and Gronkowski.
Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker asks the question that will bust my chops the rest of the year. Where does this put Justify in the pantheon of Triple Crown winners?
Watchmaker suggests Justify will suffer in the comparison.
"[M]y sense is Justify has an uphill battle in that regard if he has indeed run his last race, primarily because he has run his last race," Watchmaker said. He compared Justify to Count Fleet who, riddled with injuries, never raced after his Belmont either. They did train him to run at four but injuries did him in. And that was when the money was in the running.
Deciding that Count Fleet is disrespected, "I suspect racing history will be similarly cold to Justify," he concluded.
Justify did win the Triple Crown, only the 13th to do so. To run at the level at precisely that period in time at the longest distances is remarkable.
It was so damn tough to get a read on this horse. The Derby was fine, but with that slop, best not to form an opinion. Preakness, more of the same. And how many winners have I seen of Legs First and Second? And if you think rain, fog and slop are detrimental to a horse in a race, don't. Some horses don't mind and those who do don't run.
After he convincingly won the Belmont, I started wondering who he had really beaten. Unless a Bravazo or Good Magic runs the table, and beats older horses, which Justify never will, it wasn't much.
I really felt like Justify was a horse who got freakishly hot for 112 days and beat a bunch of horses that absolutely never lived up to the hype, including mine, of being the best three-year-old crop in years. He rode a wave of precociousness that lasted a lot longer than normal. By the time the Belmont comes along, those naivetes are run out of a horse. In the Belmont, Justify was able to combine that youthful energy with race professionalism.
I believe Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, the public faces of Justify, knew inside Justify would never run again. Baffert seemed to go through the motions, borrowing heavily from his American Pharoah archives. He even went there, calling Justify an all-timer. I didn't buy it and I don't think he did either.
In this bizarre world we live in, even though we had a frickin' Triple Crown winner this year, I have the privilege of remembering so very fondly another Triple Crown winner, from just three years ago.
The Zayat family that campaigned American Pharoah, Baffert the trainer then, is now flattered, as they say in racing, by the decision of owners WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Racing to pull Justify out of racing. There was never a doubt 'Pharoah would run again, grasping for the Breeders' Cup brass ring. They appeared obligated, and it looks awfully good now.
'Pharoah barely stopped working out after his Belmont, and won the Haskell Invitational. 2018's Monmouth gem runs tomorrow. He was fatigued and beaten in the Travers Stakes at The Graveyard of Champions, Saratoga, by Keen Ice, who he never saw coming.
Training in, 'Pharoah crossed the wire and seemingly ascended to the heavens with a decisive Breeders' Cup Classic conquest, completing a sequence that defies being dubbed a grand slam, it's so impossible.
After waiting so long after Affirmed, you'd think this is a guilty embarrassment of riches. I envision someday somebody asking me the Triple Crown winners, and I forget Justify. But I'll never forget American Pharoah and, boy, am I happy about that.
I've said that you never get attached to a horse, there's supposedly so much running to do and the "kings" of the sport are so contaminated by today's current strain of bacterial greed. These "caretakers" of the game gave up on Justify. They also gave up on me, the betting fan. So what else is new?
Watchmaker thinks Count Fleet has been forgotten because he couldn't run after the Belmont. Unless they show me proof, I won't be convinced Justify couldn't have run again.
Justify's connections have laid down the straw. Now they have to lie on it.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.