Three years after his horse American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost four decades, Southern California trainer Bob Baffert did it again Saturday in New York as another of his star thoroughbreds — Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify — held off the pack to take victory in the famed Belmont Stakes and place himself firmly into racing’s pantheon.
Justify — an imposing chestnut colt based at Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park — led the grueling 1-point-5-mile Belmont from the start, crossing the finish line just under two lengths ahead of runner-up Gronkowski.
Justify — now undefeated in six starts in less than four months — was unraced as a 2-year-old and ran in his first career start in February at Santa Anita, winning by 9 1/2 lengths.
He subsequently went on to victory in two other races at Santa Anita, including the Santa Anita Derby, while on his way to the Triple Crown.
Justify was the heavy 4-5 favorite heading into the race.
When asked about the similarities between American Pharoah and Justify, Baffert said the two are “different types of horses,” but one thing they have in common is the way they move over the ground and “sort of make their own racing luck because they’re quick and they can get out of a jam.”
He called American Pharoah a “brilliant race horse” who loved human contact and would “put his head in your lap,” but he said Justify will “give you maybe 3, 4, 5 seconds and then he’s done with you.”
Justify won the Belmont starting from the rail. The last Triple Crown winner from that spot at the Belmont was the legendary Secretariat, 45 years ago to the day Saturday.
Justify is just the second horse to capture the Triple Crown undefeated, joining Seattle Slew (1977). Justify, the first horse to sweep the series without racing at age 2, beat nine others to win Saturday — more competition than any other Triple Crown winner has defeated in the Belmont.
“The raw talent is there,” Baffert said. “He just came on there and broke every curse there was. It was meant to be.”
Justify defeated 35 horses across the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Baffert joins “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to win the Triple Crown twice. Fitzsimmons won in 1930 with Gallant Fox and in 1935 with Omaha.
It was Baffert’s fifth attempt to win the Triple Crown — three more than any other trainer.
“It never gets old,” Baffert said. “I was so blessed that I had American Pharoah. When he retired, I’ll never forget how sad I was. I said, `Wow, I’ll never have another horse like that.’ (Then) … Boom, here comes Justify. I just hopes this keeps on going.”
Jockey Mike Smith rode Justify in all but his first start. The 52-year-old Smith, a racing legend in his own right, gave the credit to his mount.
“(Justify has) the kind of ability that can pull something like this off,” Smith said.