Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2018

History And Greatness At Big Sandy

How does one measure greatness in sports? What are the standards that separate the very good from those whose place in the history books of their game is secure? On a warm spring afternoon at the Long Island racetrack known as Big Sandy, those questions seemed appropriate. A full house of 90,000 fans packed Belmont Park on Saturday, there to see the latest attempt at horse racing history.

Justify, the big 3-year-old chestnut colt with the distinguishing white blaze on his forehead, had romped at the Kentucky Derby and persevered at the Preakness. Now came the Belmont Stakes, the grueling mile and a half long race dubbed “The Test of the Champion.” A stern test it is. On thirty-five previous occasions, a horse had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but only twelve of those steeds went on to capture the Belmont, the most recent being American Pharoah in 2015.

Yet even before he left his barn for the long walk to Belmont Park’s paddock late Saturday afternoon, Justify had already accomplished so much. Five weeks earlier, on the first Saturday in May, he became just the second horse, and the first since Apollo in 1882, to win the Kentucky Derby despite not having raced as a two-year-old. And while his racing life had begun less than four months earlier with a seven-furlong win in a maiden race at Santa Anita, in it he was a perfect five for five. Win or lose at Big Sandy, an immaculate record that included the first two jewels of the Triple Crown certainly gave Justify the elements of a great career.

Mike Smith, the 52-year-old jockey who had been astride Justify since his second start, is known as “Big Money Mike” for good reason. While he started out racing quarter horses in New Mexico, once he switched to thoroughbreds in 1989 he quickly established himself as a dominant figure in the sport. He was the leading jockey at New York tracks from 1991 through 1993. He ventured overseas to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas aboard Fourstars Allstar in 1991. Two years later he won a record-setting 62 stakes races. That same year he won the Preakness, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.

When Smith was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2003, he confessed that he didn’t feel worthy of the honor. Worthy or not then, since his induction Smith has won twice at the Kentucky Derby and twice at the Belmont as well as a pair of Kentucky Oaks and sixteen Breeders’ Cup races. With more than 5,000 career wins that garnered owners more than $312 million in purses, Smith had already cemented his reputation as one of the great jockeys of his generation even before he guided Justify into the number one gate early Saturday evening.

Bob Baffert, the 65-year-old trainer of the Belmont favorite, is the most recognizable thoroughbred trainer to casual fans of horse racing by far, thanks to his shock of snow-white hair. Like Smith, Baffert was raised in the southwest and thus began his career training quarter horses. He switched to thoroughbreds in the 1980s after moving to California. He saddled his first winner of a Breeders’ Cup race before his fortieth birthday. Between 1997 and 1999 Baffert won the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer three years in a row. Prior to Saturday Baffert’s horses had won fourteen Triple Crown races, fourteen Breeders’ Cup races and both the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus World Cup, the two richest races on the planet.

Baffert’s greatest accomplishment came just three years ago, when he trained American Pharoah, the horse that broke the longest drought in Triple Crown history. As Pharoah charged down the Belmont stretch, pulling away from his pursuers, announcer Larry Collmus told the world “and here it is, the 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” Surely his status as one of just eleven trainers to saddle a Triple Crown winner qualified Baffert as one of the greatest at his trade.

Yet for all that horse, jockey, and trainer had accomplished, the one certainty as Justify stood patiently waiting in the first stall as his nine competitors were loaded into the adjoining gates, was that if one of those other horses beat him to the wire, Justify, along with Smith and Baffert, would be remembered as having failed at their collective campaign to accomplish one of the most difficult feats in all of sports. It would not matter whether it happened because the horse had an off day, the jockey made a tactical mistake, or the trainer failed in his preparations. As months turned to years and memories of their other accomplishments faded, there would always be those who would point to that one race and question their greatness.

Then the gates sprang open, and history was made. Justify bolted away like one of Smith or Baffert’s old quarter horses. He was in the lead from the start and covered the first quarter in a quick 23.37 seconds. Longshot speedster Noble Indy had been expected to mount an early challenge, but he was held up by other horses, allowing Smith to ease Justify back into a more comfortable pace as the field moved into the sweeping first turn. Restoring Hope, another entrant sent off at long odds, loped along in second place, a length behind the leader as the horses began the long run down Belmont’s back stretch.

In just over a minute and 13 seconds Justify was halfway home and heading for the far turn, still running comfortably. Behind him Vino Rosso on the outside and Bravazo on the rail stepped up their pursuit as the field approached the mile pole. At the same time Gronkowski, who had been dead last for most of the race, also began a charge on the inside. Only when they straightened for home did Smith finally ask Justify to run, and he immediately responded, stretching his advantage over Gronkowski, Vino Rosso, and now the second betting choice Hofburg, who was racing down the middle of the lane. But the pursuers would remain just that on this Saturday. As Justify came to the wire, just under two lengths ahead of his closest challenger, it was Collmus again with the declaration of the moment, “he’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal! Justify is the 13th Triple Crown winner!”

The horse is not just that, but also the second champion to claim the Crown with an undefeated record. And while Seattle Slew was the first to accomplish that feat in 1977, no other horse has come close to winning the Triple Crown a mere 112 days after their first race. Smith, who told NBC’s Donna Brothers immediately after the race that he now felt worthy of the Hall of Fame accolade bestowed on him fifteen years ago, becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, while Baffert is just the second trainer, after Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in the 1930s, to saddle a pair of Triple Crown champions. Justify, Mike Smith and Bob Baffert will forever be linked in the history books of horse racing, equine and human champions and record-setters. By any measure, three examples of greatness in sports.

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Responses

  1. I don’t follow horse races, Mike, but your story got me interested right away and kept me there the whole time. What a horse! [Don’t get me started on the outstanding trainer & jockey]. This is an uplifting story to cap off the weekend.
    Thanks.
    Ω

    • Thank you so much Allan, I really appreciate your kind words. It was an epic performance by a great team, led of course by the one member who is incapable of reading my post!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • I bet that member can count to 3.
        Ω


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