ELMONT, June 10, 2018--Is this the new age, a reboot of the 1970s when Triple Crown heroes were in ample supply? Nothing for 37 years, now two in the last four?

From the same barn, who took Belmont Day by storm then, followed by an awesome display of firepower in 2017, came out firing on Saturday with defending champion right out of the box with Abel Tasman. Game on!

And I’m thinking about Mike Smith and Bob Baffert and Seattle Slew and Billy Turner and Triple Crown perfection. But without the right Thoroughbred, it’s mere conversation.

June 9, 2018 was a celebration of the racehorse Justify, who proved worthy of the mantle of “greatness” on a warm afternoon in June at Belmont Park.

He is, indeed, very special, a rare specimen, and he’s just so damn handsome. Maybe I resisted embracing him because the nickname ‘Big Red’ was being thrown around so casually, and so often.

I’ve only seen one Big Red, the Triple Crown winner in 1973. Older schoolers I respect say that Citation, the first “Big Red,” was worthy of the sobriquet. I believed them.

But after Secretariat, for me, it was maybe Easy Goer who came the closest.

Or maybe because Seattle Slew, my first and favorite, was such a great personal experience that I wanted him to remain racing history’s only undefeated Triple Crown champion.

Too bad: Justify now has accomplished what only great horses can.

Justify is the 2018 Horse of the Year. He will be tested again, but that title is off the table. And as long as he remains healthy, the task of toppling him will remain extremely tall.

And while Slew lost his first race back after his undefeated sweep, it is doubtful that the connections of Justify will pay him the kind of scheduling disservice that was given Slew.

Racing is more sophisticated today and the breeding industry, while producing fewer horses, may be producing better ones than those of recent generations pre-Pharoah.

Offspring of Justify, when that day inevitably comes, will be invaluable. So far, his management, like his record and the execution of all those who lay their hands on him, has been perfect. His worth post-Belmont has been estimated at $75 million.

But there’s plenty of racing to come, of course. There are Haskells and Travers remaining to be won, an important fall prep, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and what likely would be a career finale worthy of Pegasus himself.

Justify was the best of his generation going into Belmont 150 and the best coming out, overcoming all of the doubters which were many, myself among them.

I allowed that little hitch in his get-along in behind bother me apparently a lot more than it bothers him. Nobody’s perfect except, of course, Justify, untied and unscored upon.

Mike Smith is ageless, having raised his game at an age when most jockeys have retired. Of course it helps when you’re riding the best horse. Alas, he’s not perfect (see Manitoulin’s Manhattan).

But the only thing that matters is Mike Smith is a good man, a humble man who begrudgingly admitted “yes I do belong” in the Hall of Fame now, laughing at himself for saying it while on his way back to the winner’s circle.

And the dedication of the Triple Crown victory to his fellow riders who weren’t as “blessed” as Mike and in fact are disabled permanently, and his prayer for Marlon St. Julien—pitch perfect words for the perfect moment.

Justify, Smith, and the Baffert Triple Crown factory are gifts to racing fans and they should be celebrated; all were mettle-tested by the fire of competition and the challenge of execution. All have been flawless.

This Triple Crown chase was deep with talent and competition from late January through Saturday afternoon and that everyone agreed. Justify beat 35 Classics rivals in all, undeterred by rain, fog or sunshine.

Justify broke like the rocket and took the lead while uncoupled stablemate Restoring Hope, was more of a pulling guard into the first turn, forcing any would-be pace pressers out into the wide expanse of Big Sandy.

Down the backside, ‘Hope’ became a blocking back, applying moderate pressure, backing off a bit after a fast opening quarter-mile, forcing the competition to lose ground to do it. He made Justify’s rivals adjust to their conditions, not the other way around. [NBC aerial view follows]


This played very well to the leader’s strengths and while some never seriously threatened at any time, three rivals did fire their best shots but none could be described as serious Belmont adversaries approaching the finish line.

The best of them was runnerup Gronkowski for Chad Brown, who had himself a weekend. It was an auspicious dirt-track debut, a bold inside sweep that cut the corner, went after the leader, and finished an excellent, non-threatening second.

Irad Ortiz rode Hofburg as if it were a turf race. It was a brilliant strategy, keeping him covered up but in close range. He fired his best shot but it wasn’t good enough. The colt is still young, still learning, an important divisional member going forward.

For his part, Vino Rosso ran his Wood Memorial race back. It played very well in Queens, but those turns get a lot wider once you cross the Cross Island Parkway. As good as the superfecta horses ran, they were no match.

The die was cast when, eight races earlier, defending champion Abel Tasman broke like a like a lightning bolt beneath Smith and routed five Ogden Phipps rivals by 7-1/2 widening lengths in 1:40.36 for a mile and a sixteenth, the day’s most dominant winner.

Two races later, talented Baffert seven year old handicapper Hoppertunity gave the Belmont crowd a preview of the celebrated mile and a half to come with a perfectly timed run, executed by SoCal star Flavien Prat.

The crème kept rising all day long. Monomoy Girl, the best three year old in America not named Justify, was two lengths the better of up-and-comer Talk Veuve to Me, finishing up a mile in 1:34.10 over the fast, honest surface.

But the day, history, and the game belongs to Justify right now. The folks at Max’s Hot Dogs in Long Branch had better be ready for fire up the grill by Haskell Day, a pre-race Baffert tradition that has resulted in eight victories.

Whether or not Justify shows up at The Shore Track is beside the point for Mr. Baffert. Maybe Wayne Lukas is right. Maybe sculptures ought to start working on a statue of Baffert for outside the gates of Santa Anita.

It is one thing to train Justify, the best horse of his generation, but is quite another to get him to show up in the biggest way six times in 111 days.

As the field was being loaded into the Belmont Stakes starting gate for the 150th time, I turned to Karen Hennegan, wife of John, half of the celebrated documentarian Hennegan Brothers entry, and whispered:

“This never gets old. It’s at times like these when I feel sorry for anyone who just doesn’t get it about horse racing.”