Patches of mist settled over horse farms around Lexington, rendering the horses pastured there as shadowy images glimpsed in silhouette. The castle a little bit past Keeneland truly did look like something out of a storybook, appearing to almost rise out of the fog lying around the rolling field surrounding it, with the earliest hints of a pink sunrise illuminating its turrets.
The mist that enveloped parts of Lexington gave way to fog so thick the highway ahead disappeared into it rapidly, reminding me of the Preakness conditions 2 weeks ago, when Justify prevailed after being pressed hard by Good Magic for much of the race and then holding off another batch of pursuers nearly in the shadow of the wire.
It was definitely no coincidence Justify was on my mind, with even foggy conditions drawing my thoughts to him. His trajectory through the first two races of the Triple Crown, with less-than-ideal conditions and how he’s revealed, whatever may yet unfurl in New York at the Belmont Stakes, has revealed he is extraordinary. Even while he raced a bit greenly in the Preakness, he has still shown a tremendous amount of talent, particularly for a colt who didn’t begin racing until February this year. What also struck me, prior to the Preakness, was how incredibly muscular he is, with a bulk that seems to belie the fact that he is 3 years old.
The purpose of the drive I took through the thick fog, the other reason Justify was on my mind as he’s been particularly since the Preakness as the questions swirl about what he may yet show he’s capable of a week from today in the Belmont, was that I was driving to Churchill Downs to watch him train during the special time set aside specifically for Belmont horses.
While I attended his Derby and saw him train prior to the Derby as well, with a limited number of horses training for the Belmont on the premises, this was the most time I had spent in proximity to Justify, providing the opportunity to note details I had never seen before..
One was the look in his eye. The other was how he came off the track after his gallop looking fired up. He seems like he will be tough to beat. Yes, the questions swirl – will stamina be a limiting factor? Will inexperience or two possibly tiring track conditions in the Derby and Preakness have taken their toll? Will one of the fresh Belmont contenders play spoiler?
Those are the unknown factors. What is certain is Baffert is confident in the way Justify has trained and that he is not dropping weight. What I observed myself is that he still appears to be full of energy and training strongly.
It was great to be at the track again, among others who gathered primarily for Justify, though Tenfold, Bravazo, and Free Drop Billy also trained at Churchill this morning.
Justify walked the shedrow under Baffert’s barn, already saddled and wearing the neon saddlecloth embroidered with his name, while waiting for the time set aside for the Belmont contenders only to train. It was a thrill to suddenly catch a glimpse of him upon arrival, this horse I drove up specifically to see and that intrigues me as much as he does, for all the possibility he represents, for the aura of greatness that he may well be on the way to claim.
A dad waiting outside Baffert’s barn with his young daughter answered her question about what Justify looks like, saying he has four legs, and pausing before delivering his punch line, that the horse is pink.
His daughter was old enough to realize a horse can’t be pink, in all probability, questioning increduously, “Pink?”
The exchange made me smile, as did the beautiful morning spent at the track, and the kinship felt by being among people all gathered to see this horse.
His pony Sunny escorted him to the track, with Justify appearing to tower above him. I took a spot where I watched the Derby and all the other races that day, though thankfully it was not in a downpour this time. Justify ran by twice during his gallop, the first time he went by causing a lady to murmur that he was “poetry in motion.” All chatter stopped as he went by, everyone soaking in the sight of him running by, possibly trying to assess how the gallop indicated what he may do in a week’s time, as best a gallop can reveal what potential lies within a horse to unfurl a winning effort in a race.
This is definitely the kind of horse to make one dream, given all he’s already accomplished in such a short time.
Following him back to the barn for his bath, he stood calmly, while nearby Sunny stuck his nose in a bucket of water and lifted the sponge in it out with his teeth. He appeared to have a bit of a playful demeanor now that he was done accompanying Justify to the track, trying to grab at the towel used to dry him after his bath, and toying with his lead shank.
The training session set aside for the Belmont horses was rather short-lived, with much fewer on the grounds than Derby horses. I was grateful that Churchill had set aside this training time, giving me a specific time frame to aim for to see Justify along with anyone else who hoped to see him, since I drove up from Lexington the same morning he galloped.
Afterwards, I visited the Derby museum for the first time this year, primarily to see the collection D. Wayne Lukas had donated to them and their famed racing fillies exhibit.
As a gatherer of racing facts and one who is immensely interested in racing trivia and history, seeing Lukas’ Derby trophies side by side made it possible to note when the horseshoe on them was switched from being open side down to open side up. I particularly noted that because I read years ago how the Derby trophy used to have the horseshoe open side down for quite a while, until the realization struck that according to superstition, that is bad luck, and the horseshoe was placed open side up.
Yet it seemed on the trainers’ Derby trophies, the trend had not been observed as quickly as on the large Derby trophy always seen on TV. It wasn’t until Lukas received a trophy in 1999, for Charismatic’s victory, that the horseshoe was right side up. Yet all his Oaks trophies, even the ones that predated his earliest Derby one, had the horseshoe open side up.
It was also interesting to see items I didn’t know trainers are given that he had to commemorate victories of horses he trained, like a small replica of the canoe in the Saratoga infield that is painted each year in the colors of the Travers winners, awarded to Lukas for Will Take Charge’s victory in that race, and that he also collected memorabilia with ties to significant racing history, beyond those he achieved.
I also went on the Churchill Downs walking tour for the first time, learning a few more history tidbits I never knew before.
I wrapped up my visit viewing the famous fillies exhibit.
Being near Justify reminds me of the Helen Keller quote, in a slight paraphrase, that the most beautiful things must be felt with the heart. While she also said they can’t be seen, the sentiment that deepest meaning arises from emotional connection holds true in many cases.
So it was with Justify, most of all on a quiet morning on the Churchill Downs backside a week before the Belmont, when I felt I really got to know him, taking in his calm demeanor and powerful frame, and what TV cameras and photographs can only partially reveal. This was a near indefinable quality that emanated from him, a sense that he is truly exceptional. I once did not know what to make of him, bursting onto the scene and being hyped as a near “wonder horse” with light racing experience, and so it did surprise me when he won the Derby, a race that has unnerved even more experienced horses, between the huge throngs of people present, all the noise and the large field to thread their way through or in some cases get stymied by. It was the first inkling that perhaps the hype had indeed not been hype. His connections probably knew Justify had the caliber it took to contest the Derby. Not questioning that. The disbelief that was hard to suspend was that a horse could achieve what he has by essentially throwing out all the known “rules” of how a horse wins a Kentucky Derby.
The Preakness victory, later described as him not bringing his best effort, and still winning, and how he subsequently trained leading up to the Belmont both proved to me that in spite of his light racing experience (which did show as he raced a bit greenly in the Preakness, not too unexpected for only his fifth lifetime start) is when it became evident to me what Bob Baffert had been suggesting all along. This horse has the potential to be one of the greats.
Knowing I would not be able to attend his Belmont and that he seemed to have an incredibly legitimate chance to win the Triple Crown , compelled me to attend his training session early in June, to have another experience witnessing his run for glory.
As I stood near him as he left the track after his gallop that day, seemingly not even breathing hard, that is when I sensed some of what lies within him that has made it possible for him to achieve what he has done. When I reflected on that, it was the morning of Belmont day, and however the 1 ½ mile Test of the Champion unfolded for him, I would always remember I was in the presence of an exceptional horse.
There was a good feeling among many people about his chances to capture the Triple Crown. He trained like a powerhouse around the Belmont surface. While the race would reveal what no training session could, he appeared more than ready for the task ahead. His energy and strength levels had remained consistent and even appeared to increase. His muscular build is incredible to see, almost seeming to indicate he is older than three. He had also faced his stiffest challenge in a race in the Preakness and had not been found wanting. Heart, courage, and an ability to dig in to prevail should serve him well.
He does have what it takes, as long a stamina isn’t a limiting factor, a question in some circles.
As remarkable as it is he is at this juncture, having only begun racing in February this year, he seems to have an incredibly realistic shot at the Triple Crown.
I believe it is his to capture because I saw him train that morning at Churchill, and because at every step along the way, he continued to show what he was made of. May the next steps, the marathon distance of the Belmont, be his proving ground as it was always intended to be.
And, as is well-known now, he did indeed come “roaring home” and prevailed, further cementing what American Pharoah had shown me. Everything does not have to be perfect or by the book for a Triple Crown winner to occur. He won the Triple Crown because he is exceptional, just as I had seen June 2. Still, in spite of having thought he had what it took, until that moment when he burst out of the gate and was able to stretch a front-running style to a wire-to-wire victory, the questions had to be answered and answered them emphatically.
What an emotional moment it was, to hear he had won the Triple Crown. As a near lifelong racing enthusiast, and this being the second Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, how that moment felt that June 9 will likely linger with me for a long time. As it should, for the rare achievement it is, in a sport that is part of me as surely as if it were in my DNA to love it and be drawn to it.