Page through the annals of Thoroughbred history all you want; there is no point of reference for what we saw streaking across racetracks and our consciousness in 2018. Justify , who appeared and then departed in what seemed like a wink of an eye, nevertheless left an indelible impression and was rewarded with Horse of the Year honors and the trophy for top 3-year-old male.
That such hardware is awarded to just the 13th winner of racing’s Holy Grail, the Triple Crown, is no surprise. It would have been shocking had he not been so recognized. But the path he blazed cut through so many obstacles and heavy brush that it is virtually certain none will follow in his hoofprints.
The facts are stark: In 2018, Justify became only the second Triple Crown winner in the century-old grouping of the three races who accomplished that sweep undefeated. He undid the “Curse of Apollo,” becoming the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby (G1) without the benefit of racing at 2. He ran the fastest early fractions of any Derby winner in history and did so in just his fourth lifetime start. He won the Triple Crown 3 1/2 months after his first race. Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown winner on the next-most-condensed schedule, accomplished his 1977 Belmont Stakes (G1) victory nearly nine months after his first race.
Justify was bred in Kentucky by John Gunther, who followed the advice of his daughter, Tanya, when mating the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic to Scat Daddy. Justify was raised on the Gunthers’ Glennwood Farm outside Versailles.
Trainer Bob Baffert reserves the term “freak” for exceptional horses that go through their training effortlessly and possess gears they don’t even show until they need them in the heat of battle. Justify was a freak among freaks from the moment he arrived at Baffert’s barn at Los Alamitos in November 2017. Baffert and his assistant, Mike Marlow, couldn’t get to the bottom of the colt, not during five-eighths-mile works at Los Al, and not when he graduated to Santa Anita Park.
In Justify’s maiden race in February, Baffert erred, putting blinkers on the colt because he wasn’t breaking from the gate well enough. Justify left the gate last of five that day, then decided to slingshot himself up past the leaders, setting fractions considered suicidal for maidens going seven furlongs. Instead of folding, as Baffert expected, Justify hit another of those gears and won by 9 1/2 lengths.
Between that race and Justify’s optional-claiming allowance score in early March, Baffert was quietly telling people the colt would win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), on its face an outlandish claim that seemed less crazy by the day. Justify took that two-turn allowance in the mud at Santa Anita by 6 1/2 lengths. Clearly, his talent was limitless, but he was on a schedule so compressed that even the smallest setback threatened to derail the Derby dream of his owners, who then consisted of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners, after original co-owner SF Racing sold its share of his racing rights.
Baffert’s opinion aside, Justify still hadn’t earned a single point toward gaining a spot in the Derby starting gate 28 days before the Run for the Roses. That was when he faced off against multiple grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). In just his third start, Justify toyed with one of the most accomplished runners of his generation, defeating him by three lengths.
To watch Justify handle the crowds and new surroundings at Churchill Downs during Derby week, it seemed impossible he carried just three races in his portfolio. Nothing bothered the 1,260-pound colt, and he continued to thrive. Stalking the speed-crazy early fractions of Promises Fulfilled over the sloppy (sealed) surface, Justify took control with a half-mile to run and cruised to victory against what was thought to be the deepest Derby field in years, bettering juvenile champion Good Magic by 2 1/2 lengths.
Justify, finally moving over a dry track, led every step of the way in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), gaining Triple Crown glory by 1 3/4 lengths over the late-charging Gronkowski.
“He ran every pole,” said rival trainer Chad Brown. “At the quarter pole of the Derby and Belmont, I felt very good about my horses’ (Good Magic and Gronkowski) chances. They both had good trips, but they couldn’t get to him.”
After returning to Baffert’s Santa Anita stable, Justify was found to have filling in the soft tissue around an ankle and was retired in July to stand at Ashford Stud, which had purchased his breeding rights for a reported $75 million to $80 million. He is standing his first season at stud for a $150,000 fee.
“It was a privilege to train a horse like this,” said Baffert, who collected his second Triple Crown in three years. “He is a magnificent animal, and I wanted to see his name up there with the greats. He showed so much raw talent early on and had such a great mind to go along with it. On top of all that, he’s one of the most beautiful horses ever.”