or a century it’s been regarded as perhaps the most difficult task in American sports: winning three prestigious races at three different distances in three different states over a five-week span against the highest-caliber competition in the game, a feat that requires uncommon speed for the first two legs, unflagging stamina in the last and tactical balance in all three. So demanding, in fact, that only a dozen in history have managed to pull it off.
On Saturday, a strapping, powerful chestnut colt named Justify, the unbeaten Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, will attempt to become the 13th in that immortal club in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, completing a sweep of America’s three most famous races at Belmont Park, the venerable race course just outside New York city limits.
The three-year-old son of Scat Daddy, trained by Bob Baffert and rode by Mike Smith, didn’t compete in a race until the third week of February, but has won all five starts of his compressed career and will go off as a better than even money favorite to become only the second undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown after the great Seattle Slew – and the only one of the entire lot to have not raced as a
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Baffert said Wednesday. “It’s been quick. He’s handled everything thrown at him without losing his composure. A lot of horses get nervous, hot. He thrives on this. Not only is he a great athlete, but he has a great mind. In the Derby, the Preakness, he was in the paddock like he’d handled it all before.
“He’s a very fearless type of horse.”
Thoroughbred racing commands only a fraction of the attention in the United States as it did 99 years ago, when Sir Barton became the first horse to win the iconic treble. And the run-up to Saturday’s bid has been notably subdued compared to three years ago when American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in style, breaking away from the pack down the homestretch amid a deafening crescendo of nearly 100,000 delirious spectators to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Then, folks were simply looking for proof it could still be done, same as when Secretariat came along and ended a quarter-century skid in 1973.
But not unlike boxing, another ancient sport whose protracted retreat toward the margins of American life belies the grip on the national consciousness it once held, the biggest events are still capable of crossing over into the mainstream and overtaking the conversation if only for a day. Horse racingmight not be on SportsCenter all the time, but America has not forgotten the Triple Crown.
“The great thing about the Belmont when there’s a Triple Crown at stake is I think it brings our sport to the very highest level and becomes the most exciting sports event arguably that there is,” said Todd Pletcher, the decorated trainer who will try for a fourth career Belmont victory with Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. “It puts us right on par with the Super Bowl and the World Series. I mean, the Belmont on its own is a tremendous event and a tremendous race, but when there’s a Triple Crown at stake, to me there’s nothing like it.”
Justify, whose extraordinary natural ability only benefits from a Hall of Fame trainer and a Hall of Fame jockey, was regarded as a freakish talent but an untested one until last month, when he became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year-old, seeing off a crowded field of 19 challengers in the slop at Churchill Downs.