The 13th Triple Crown winner paused his morning walk to pose for photographs, looking fresher than any horse should after running three high-pressure races in the past five weeks.
“He just looks like he’s ready to go again,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday morning as he began to process Justify’s historic run. “We were just in there, watching the replay over and over, and it looked like he could have gone around again.”
The morning after the Belmont Stakes questions quickly turned to what’s next for the newest Triple Crown winner. ESPN reported that Justify’s owners agreed to a $60 million breeding deal with European racing giant Coolmore before Saturday’s race. The reported sale included a $15 million Triple Crown bonus that pushed it to a record $75 million total.
Elliott Walden, president and CEO of Justify’s co-owner WinStar Farm, declined to comment on the report. But the price tag prompted speculation that Justify might never run again. Walden said that’s not the plan.
“We want to race him, at least through this year,” he said Sunday. “We’re looking forward to sharing him more. He’s now become a household name, and I’m looking forward to the next race just as much as you guys are.”
At the post-race news conference Saturday, Walden referenced coming back in the late summer, which could mean the Aug. 18 Pacific Classic at Del Mar or the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. On Sunday, he said there’s no plan as of now.
Coolmore also purchased breeding rights for 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah (for $10 million initially, though the deal was pushed to about $30 million with bonuses). He raced three more times after the Belmont Stakes, capping his career with a resounding victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Baffert was noncommittal on Justify’s future but also seemed eager to run him again, as long as he’s healthy.
“I haven’t sat down with Elliott or anything,” he said. “We still can’t believe we went through this. It’s the longest, quickest journey we’ve ever been on.”
Baffert was referring to the incredible 111-day rush from Justify’s maiden start at Santa Anita on Feb. 18 through the three legs of the Triple Crown. Six races, six victories and only in the Preakness did he appear vulnerable.
Because Justify trampled on the Curse of Apollo, which said no horse could win the Kentucky Derby without running as a 2-year-old, he’ll be talked about as the flag bearer for a new generation of lightly raced Triple Crown contenders.
Baffert has said it would be a good thing if owners no longer feel they have to force a 2-year-old start for every potential Derby horse. But he said Sunday that Justify is less a trendsetter than a unique phenomenon.
“I think it was just a special case,” he said. “We got him in November, after the Breeders’ Cup, and took our time with him, no rush. And he just came along himself. When he showed that brilliance when he broke his maiden, we knew maybe he had a chance, but he was going to have to be something really special.”
Baffert never wants to discuss his own legacy, but Justify’s victory stamped him as perhaps the greatest trainer in the history of his sport. He’s won more Triple Crown races, 15, than anyone else and became just the second trainer, after James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, to win two Triple Crowns.
His peers couldn’t help but give him credit for leading Justify so far in such a short period.
“Unbelievable training job,” said Chad Brown, winner of the past two Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer. “He’s one of the greatest of all time, and he just added yet another remarkable accomplishment to an incredible career already.”
Baffert and his family celebrated at familiar favorite restaurant King Umberto, just down Hempstead Turnpike from the track. The staff made special pizzas with Justify and Triple Crown spelled out in pepperoni.
Justify will leave Belmont Park on Monday and go back to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., for at least a week before eventually returning to Baffert’s home base in California.
The Hall of Fame trainer wasn’t ready to assign a historical ranking to his horse. But he did reminisce about the great talents who fell short in the Belmont, from Smarty Jones to Big Brown to California Chrome. There was a time when Baffert didn’t know whether he’d see another Triple Crown winner. Now he knows it just takes the right horse, or horses in his case.
“Opinions die, facts live forever,” he said. “That’s what the Triple Crown is all about.”