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Justify becomes 13th Triple Crown winner with thrilling Belmont Stakes victory

In the most important race of his life, Justify ran free — free of nine other horses who never managed to press him and free of the fatigue and poor luck that had doomed so many Triple Crown contenders before him.

Gone also was the intensity of 2015, when 90,000 fans shook the stands at Belmont Park as they willed American Pharoah to wipe away 37 years of disappointment.

Justify was simply a great horse, running his race. And we’ve learned that under those circumstances, he’s just about impossible to beat. On Saturday, a mere 111 days into his career, he became the 13th Triple Crown winner in history.

Racing fans waited almost four decades for a champion to succeed Affirmed. But just three years after American Pharoah reset the clock at Belmont, the precocious, musclebound Justify shoved his way into thoroughbred racing’s most glorified club.

He and American Pharoah, both trained by Bob Baffert, have created a new era of stars, reminiscent of the 1970s, when three brilliant horses won the Triple Crown in a five-year span.

Forty-five years to the day after another big chestnut, Secretariat, swept the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths, Justify made his own brand of history, as did the humans who nurtured him.

Baffert became the second trainer to win two Triple Crowns, following James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who did it with the father-son pair of Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935).

“I really didn’t think about that,” Baffert said. “It’s just a privilege to have a horse like this. I wanted to see this horse up there, his name up there with those greats. I knew that if he was great, he was going to do it.”

It was also the 15th Triple Crown victory of Baffert’s career, breaking a tie with D. Wayne Lukas for most wins by a trainer.

Baffert acknowledged this Triple Crown attempt carried less tension than American Pharoah’s run three years ago, when the feat still seemed closer to impossible. He said comparing the two great champions is like comparing his children.

“I don’t have to really compare them, because if they make this wall,” he said, pointing to photos of past Triple Crown winners all around him, “it’s all OK.”

At age 52, jockey Mike Smith became the oldest rider to win the Triple Crown. One questioner added a year during the post-race press conference.

“What do you mean, 53?” Smith said in mock indignation. But he then happily played grandpa, noting he’d taken a nap earlier in the day.

“I’m just an old man, sitting still and staying out of the way,” he said of his role in Justify’s triumph. “Just let a good horse be a good horse.”

He thanked Baffert, with whom he’s built a productive and periodically tempestuous union, for “making my dream come true.”

For an ownership group that includes Kentucky-based WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club and later investors such as former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player Sol Kumin, the victory was an almost unimaginable payoff on a $500,000 purchase made at Keeneland in September 2016.

“A horse like this just kind of happens to you,” said WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden. As he walked away from the saddling area, he asked Baffert what he’d told Smith before sending Justify to the track.

“I told him the gas tank’s full,” Baffert said.

Justify was the first horse to enter the starting gate, and he stood there so calmly that Smith was almost worried.

Don’t fret, the gate attendant told him. He’s going to break clean. And so he did, jumping to the left but coming out quickly enough that he seized an easy lead going into the first turn.

When Baffert saw the first ¼-mile pass in 23.37 seconds, he worried Justify was going too fast to hold up over the full 1½ miles. “Don’t empty that tank, Mike,” he thought from his vantage point in the grandstand.

But the pace slowed from there as did Baffert’s heart rate.

He and Smith worried that horses such as Noble Indy and Bravazo would press the pace early to wear Justify out, but they never did. And when rival trainer Chad Brown saw the modest time splits on the backstretch, he knew Justify would have too much energy to be caught.

“I’ve gotten a close-up look at Justify, and I had the horse that went after him, strong, in the Preakness, and he still finished,” Brown said. “So if you leave him alone, you’re definitely not going to have a shot to beat him. So I’m disappointed nobody took a shot at the horse down the backside.”

After three tries at Justify, with Good Magic in the Derby and Preakness and Gronkowski in the Belmont, Brown came away with deep respect for the winner.

“It’s remarkable. Winning a Triple Crown is so hard to do, and that’s why it’s done very rarely,” he said. “This horse is incredible. We’ve run against him in all three legs and ran well. Two horses in three races and they all fired a really good shot at him and weren’t able to catch him. So he’s a deserving winner.”

Baffert looked hard at the top of the stretch to see if Smith was whipping Justify, asking for his final reserves of energy. When he saw Smith still riding with just his hands, he exhaled slightly.

Runner-up Gronkowski and third-place finisher Hofburg pulled within striking distance but never got closer than 1¾ lengths as the crowd of 90,327 urged Justify to the wire.

Justify paid $3.60 on a $2 bet to win, $3.50 on a $2 bet to place and $2.80 on a $2 bet to show. Gronkowski, named after New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, paid $13.80 and $7. Hofburg paid $3.70.

After Seattle Slew, Justify became the second horse to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated. Few horses have ever come so far, so fast.

Justify lined up for his maiden start at Santa Anita Park on Feb.18. Seventy-six days later, he won the Kentucky Derby, the first horse to do so without having run as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.

This shocking run wasn’t so shocking to those who watched Justify’s early moves on the track at Santa Anita. Baffert sensed he had a “monster” on his hands the first time he breezed the colt in January.

After NBC analyst Randy Moss watched Justify win that maiden race by 9 ½ lengths — despite a trip that had Baffert fuming at jockey Drayden Van Dyke — he called his colleague, Jerry Bailey, and said he had a new Derby favorite.

“It was the most impressive debut from a racehorse I have ever seen,” Moss recalled.

Smith climbed aboard for the next race on March 18 at a muddy Santa Anita. He could hardly believe the acceleration he felt underneath him when he asked the big horse to make a move midway through a 6 ½-length victory. He quickly decided that in almost 40 years as a jockey, he’d never ridden a more gifted 3-year-old.

Justify broadcast his rare talent to the wider world at Churchill Downs, where he transcended a driving rain and 19 challengers to win the Derby by 2 ½ lengths. He inspired favorable comparisons to American Pharoah.

His story grew more complicated the next morning when he looked uncomfortable putting pressure on a bruised left hind heel. Questions about his stamina deepened at the Preakness, where he tired over another muddy track and held on to win by ½ a length.

That set up a familiar drama for the 1 ½-mile Belmont. Would Justify fall victim to the fatigue and bad luck that had marked 13 failed Triple Crown bids between 1978 and 2015? Or would he become the rare horse, like American Pharoah, talented enough to overcome all obstacles?

He also faced questions he could not control. With the last Triple Crown just three years past, would casual sports fans embrace him as they had American Pharoah?

For the first time in this Triple Crown series, race day dawned sunny and dry. Baffert pronounced his champion ready to go after two weeks of ideal training. But he didn’t truly know the Triple Crown was in hand until the final 1/16 of a mile.

At that point, the verdict on Justify was clear.

“He’s just one of the all-time great horses,” Baffert said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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