We are in between major segments of the 12 month racing season and as such, it’s a good time to share a few select facts and observations while keeping an eye out for what will be on the menu for the Summer and Fall.
For instance, while Justify became the 13th horse to sweep the American Triple Crown and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was scoring his second sweep in three years – a remarkable achievement – we probably did not give enough credit to jockey Mike Smith for his superlative rides aboard the undefeated 3-year-old colt who won all three classic races in near wire to wire fashion.
Going 1-1/4 miles while racing near the pace against 19 rivals in the Kentucky Derby and following that victory with wire to wire rides in the 1-3/16 mile Preakness and 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes required special skills that went beyond Smith’s Hall of Fame career. Frankly, I thought his rides were among the smoothest, best judged rides in major stakes I have seen in my 50-plus years of following this sport.
While Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame 15 years ago for his excellent overall career, there ought to be a special designation attached to his Hall of Fame plaque that pays tribute to his superior accomplishment in this Triple Crown. Likewise, the same kind of added note should be tacked on to the plaque Bob Baffert has been in the Hall of Fame since he was elected in 2009.
Frankly, similar added notes should be strongly considered for the other members of the prestigious Hall for all trainers and jockeys who add special accomplishments that go beyond the reasons they were originally elected. Given the way Baffert and Smith went through this Triple Crown, it is quite reasonable to expect the Hall of Fame committee to provide more space on every plaque that pays tribute to an active rider, or trainer to do proper justice to new career accomplishments.
While Justify probably has sealed away the Horse of the Year title through his Triple Crown performances, to my mind, he needs to prove he can beat good older horses in the second half of the season for me to label him a “truly great horse.”
As it stands now, Baffert is planning to point Justify for the 1-1/4 mile, $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August, which as most people in this game know, is the summer’s premier race for 3-year-olds. But even if he gets through that hurdle unscathed, his real tests for true class will occur when he faces off against proven top older horses who have earned Beyer Speed Figures higher than anything Justify has posted.
Among these are: Ben Jersey, Chief Cicatriz, Accelerate and Dr. Dorr, and there are at least a dozen other stakes horses who have earned Beyers that either match Justify’s best number of 107 or are close to the Triple Crown winner’s lifetime top.
Some of the races in which such high class matchups are likely to occur will be in September after Saratoga closes when the Belmont Fall race meet begins. But of course, the premier race of the year is almost guaranteed to be the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic – the annual 1-1/4 mile race open to 3-year-olds and up – a race that tends to identify champions. It will be run this year at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Nov. 3.
So far, we have not seen a turf horse that seems best of that division and the same is true for the fillies who are still trying to sort themselves out. Of course, there is no way we can overlook the large number of 2-year-olds who will be making their debuts at Saratoga and Del Mar during the summer. Most years those races for 2-year-olds help identify next seasons’ Triple Crown prospects; but, that was not the case this year, as Justify did something very rare in horse racing that demonstrated his abundant talent.
Justify was among very few horses in racing history who won the Kentucky Derby, or the Preakness and/or the Belmont, without having had a single race as a 2-year-old! That he swept the Triple Crown with such a light resume is another achievement that will mark him forever as a most unusual specimen – even if he does not develop further into a horse who can handle older, more mature Thoroughbreds.