Justify’s legacy? The key player on a horse racing ‘dream team’
NEW YORK — An hour after his historic win aboard Justify, jockey Mike Smith sat in front of a crowded room of reporters, describing what it was like for an “old man” of 52 to finally win a Triple Crown. To his right sat trainer Bob Baffert, whose eyes were transfixed on the flat-screen TV over his right shoulder.
The TV was showing a replay of Justify’s wire-to-wire victory Saturday in the 150th Belmont Stakes, a dominating performance that stamped the massive chestnut colt as one of the greatest in thoroughbred history. Baffert, head turned, watched his handiwork in HD with a small smile that refused go away.
It was a fitting scene. There was a Hall-of-Fame trainer and a Hall-of-Fame jockey, side by side, sharing a moment and celebrating only the second horse to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated record. This was the horse racing version of The Dream Team. They couldn’t lose. What unfolded under an overcast sky before 90,327 at Belmont Park was the confluence of their work and skill, carried out brilliantly by a 1,380-pound horse that won for the sixth time in only 112 days.
Sometimes it’s simple in sports. Add greatness to greatness, and what do you expect?
“He’s just one of those all-time great horses,” said Baffert, who won the Triple Crown three years ago with American Pharoah.
Justify, the first to win the Triple Crown after not having raced as a 2-year-old, owned Belmont from the moment he arrived on Wednesday. Baffert said he was taken aback by the reaction of the other horses in the barn when Justify entered the building, so to speak.
“I’ll never forget it,” Baffert said. “When I unloaded him the other day, those horses in that barn went nuts when they saw him. I’ve never seen anything like that. They just knew his presence. There was something about him.”
Justify carried that swagger through the 1 1/2-mile race, starting from the rail and jumping to an early lead. He was so fast out of the gate that Baffert was worried if the 4-to-5 favorite would be able to maintain it over the arduous track.
In the paddock before the race, Baffert told Smith, “The gas tank is full. Don’t use it all at once.” Smith seemed to be doing just that, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Mostly, he just trusted his mount, which seemed to toy with the other nine horses in becoming the 13th Triple Crown champion. Justify won by 1 3/4 lengths, leaving the impression it could’ve been more if he felt like it.
Smith was brilliant, orchestrating the race of his life to become the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown. He was criticized for his closing strategy in the Preakness, making the win closer than it should’ve been, but history won’t remember that chatter.
“Bob has helped me achieve so many of my goals, but today, man, he made my dream come true,” an emotional Smith said. “He talks about how brilliant his crew is and then he just puts an old man out there to just sit still.” Baffert felt confident, not stressed, during the run-up to the race. It was a different vibe than 2015, when he admittedly felt pressure to win with American Pharoah. After a handful of agonizing Triple Crown misses, he broke through with Pharoah, solidifying his legacy.
Elliott Warden, one of Justify’s owners, called Baffert “the greatest of all-time.” Indeed, he joined “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers in history to capture two Triple Crowns. Baffert was at ease before the race. So was Smith, who actually took a nap — something he never would’ve done as a younger jockey. Experience has made him wiser, he said. The horse helped. Asked if he’d rank Justify as the greatest thoroughbred, Smith laughed.
“You asking me?” he said, almost incredulously. “I think he’s the greatest of all time. I just won a Triple Crown, man. He’s my champion.” Justify joined Seattle Slew as the only two undefeated Triple Crown winners, culminating a dazzling ascent. He raced for the first time on Feb. 19 at Santa Anita, winning by 9 ½ lengths. At that point, Smith joined the team.
Now it was complete.
“To win six races in a short amount of time like he did is just an unbelievable feat on his part,” Smith said.
Great jockey. Great trainer. Great horse.
A Dream Team for the ages.