When you’ve been involved in anything for half a century, especially something that encompasses your life, you have a tendency to fall back on history when dealing with the present and looking ahead to the future. To ignore history is to indulge in nothing more than speculation and the slim possibility that something can be accomplished that had never been accomplished before.
There usually is a reason, or a historical trend, why something has never been accomplished. So it is easy to understand why no one ever thought Babe Ruth’s iconic record of 60 home runs in one season would ever be equaled, never mind broken, and even more so his career record of 714 home runs. But those records have long been broken, along with numerous other seemingly unreachable records in sports, such as Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile. That record lasted 46 days.
So, when Justify burst on the scene this past February 18 with a spectacular debut victory going seven furlongs, it added a new exciting element to the 3-year-old scene. But history told us that winning the Kentucky Derby in two and a half months was nothing more than a pipe dream. Sweeping the Triple Crown 16 weeks after his debut was unthinkable. In the context of history it was almost laughable. After all, history was the only point of reference we had. All we saw was a horse venturing, some believing foolhardily, into uncharted territory.
After 50 years in the sport, I came to rely on history, not with the belief that something cannot be done, but needing to see with my own eyes that it can. I always believed that by ignoring history you will feel foolish when an attempt to defy it fails.
In the case of Justify, no horse since 1882 had won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. For perspective, that occurred only six years after the Battle of Little Bighorn. And only one horse in the past 103 years had won the Derby with only three career starts. And that horse, Big Brown, had won going two turns as a 2-year-old, five and a half months earlier than Justify’s debut. Also there were no standouts in that year’s crop of 3-year-olds, and Big Brown was one of those freakish horses that rarely comes along. So, with history came logic.
We are all aware that racing has changed dramatically over the years, with horses attempting to win classic races with little foundation or experience. Sure, you had a feeling that one of these years a special horse would come along and rewrite history by accomplishing feats never before accomplished; a horse who would stamp his name in racing lore. But for the historians – those who relied on the past to help dictate the present – they needed to see it done first. They needed to see a horse prove himself worthy of inclusion into the history books.
Well, they have now seen it. In the realm of history, Justify has become a pioneer. He did more than just sweep the Triple Crown a mere 16 weeks after making his career debut and do it without having raced as a 2-year-old, and win the Kentucky Derby with only three lifetime starts. In many ways, he has made us shut the history books for good. He has shown us that there is nothing unattainable, regardless of what history tells us. He made us realize that there no longer are worlds that cannot be conquered.
This makes Justify one of the most important horses of our time. It is too early to know for sure just how great a horse he is, but one thing is for sure, he has brought about change, mainly in the way we think. And there is something extremely profound in that. From now on, whenever we see a horse trying to do something that has never been done before, or has rarely been done, we will think of Justify and what he accomplished in a period of 112 days in 2018.
From a personal standpoint, Derby Dozen will never be the same. I no longer can use history as a reason for doubt or skepticism. Justify did that by removing the name Apollo from our lips after 136 years. He did it by accomplishing something in 16 weeks that it took all the previous Triple Crown winners an average of 11 months to accomplish.
Justify exhibited recuperative powers we had never seen before. To be put through such a rigorous grind and show no ill effects, bouncing out of each race like a fresh horse, was truly remarkable. From his victory in the Santa Anita Derby to his Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes he lost a total of three pounds. That is unheard of, especially for a 1,260-pound horse. When he arrived back home at Santa Anita following the Belmont, he looked no different than when he embarked on his arduous journey.
Yes, he rewrote history, and in the future when another horse attempts to duplicate a feat such as the one we witnessed this year, we naturally will say, “Well, Justify showed it can be done.” But there will be one huge difference. That horse will not be Justify.