In the 143 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes have been run, only 13 horses have won all three (9%). Fifty-two horses have won only two of the races; 23 failed the third race. The Belmont is the longest, so a horse that likes the front–like Justify–would have to hold the lead forever after already becoming The Target. Thus, I found myself teary-eyed watching Justify complete the Triple Crown even though we had only just been introduced.
Winning is hard enough when everyone tries equally, but even harder when everyone tries specifically to beat you.
The Lengths That They Must Go
I still remember that other chestnut thoroughbred from 1973. Everyone should watch that Belmont race (thanks, Youtube!). Secretariat was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, although I didn’t know it then. What sticks out is his surge along the back stretch, “Big Red” on his way to winning by 31 lengths. TV cameras couldn’t zoom out as they do now, so as the horse pulls away, the camera has to pan farther and farther right to see the rest of the field.
Triple Crown winners come in spurts. Seven horses won from 1930-45, though a quarter century passed before Secretariat broke the drought. Two more winners followed him in the 1970s, Affirmed and Seattle Slew. Just as viewers started to yawn, another 37-year gap occurred until American Pharoah won in 2015.
Losing by a Nose, Three Times
Affirmed’s feat in 1978 was different from Secretariat’s. All three of Affirmed’s races were close; he beat the same horse, Alydar, three times. At the Belmont, Alydar almost passed him, and the write-up here described it as one of the closest in history. Hard to be Affirmed, three times the target–how much harder to be Alydar, just nosed out all three times? A worthy competitor makes the champion’s achievement almost as remarkable as 31 lengths.
Justify’s lineage includes Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and War Admiral–all Triple Crown winners. Like that other red horse, Justify favors the lead, the worst position for winning any kind of race, since the front-runner can not see the chasers. Justify’s jockey Mike Smith, the oldest to win a Triple Crown, had as much work to keep Justify in front as those who tried to catch him from behind.
The 2018 Belmont was also a well-contested race, not a runaway by Justify. Gronkowski moved up from a terrible start to almost pull even; there were huzzahs in our house for the white-cap in second.
All three races in 2018 were drizzly, with the Derby the wettest in years. Yet Justify’s prowess is seen in the pictures.
He’s the only horse and rider not spattered with mud, a clear, clean winner.