How does a horse establish a legacy in six starts, only four of them stakes? It’s not easy taking such a dramatic shortcut into history, but you have to give Justify credit. So far, he's done a great job making an abridged version of a classic book an enjoyable, meaningful, and important read.
The younger generation won't remember the Classic comic books, where the great works of literature, like Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Great Expectations were condensed into easy-to-read comic books with brilliant illustrations. At best, it made you want to read the entire book. Justify gave us a condensed classic career and made us wish we could have witnessed a longer version of it. But it was not to be.
Sure, in a perfect world, a comet would shoot across the sky at a much slower speed so we could marvel at it longer. But, oh, the thrill it provides in that short period of time. So, think of Justify as a comet, only with a shorter tail.
Racing fans were deprived of a full career from Justify, but as I have stated in previous columns, history comes in all forms, and there is no doubting Justify's impact on history. It actually was the brevity of his career that made him so compelling and sets him apart from the other 12 Triple Crown winners. He accomplished in 112 days what it took them an average of more than 10 months to accomplish. He rewrote the book on how to prepare for and sweep the Triple Crown. He was to racing what Bo Jackson was to football in his four years in the NFL, what Sandy Koufax was to baseball from 1963 to 1966, and what Steve Cauthen was to jockeys in 1977 and ’78.
And as far as brilliance, remember, large margins of victory do not define a horse's career. American Pharoah won most of his races by fairly large margins, going unchallenged throughout. But it was his hard-fought, one-length victory in the Kentucky Derby over two immensely talented horses, Firing Line and Dortmund that truly defined him, just as Justify’s hard-fought battle in the foggy Preakness Stakes defined him, as he out-dueled champion Good Magic and then held off the challenges of Bravazo and Tenfold. And he did it coming off a foot bruise suffered in the Kentucky Derby and virtually no serious training in the two weeks between races.
And that is where the Travers comes in. We already know all the ways Justify defied history, especially putting the so-called “Apollo Curse” to rest after 136 years. But can he actually add to his legacy after being retired?
Yes, considering the leading contenders for the Travers Stakes. Good Magic will be the likely favorite, followed closely by Hofburg, and then in no particular order, Vino Rosso, Gronkowski, Tenfold, and Bravazo. What this is, basically, is a list of the horses who chased Justify home in the three Triple Crown races. Good Magic was second in the Kentucky Derby and a close fourth in the Preakness. Hofburg was a troubled seventh in the Derby and third in the Belmont Stakes. Gronkowski was second in the Belmont. Bravazo and Tenfold were second and third, respectively, in the Preakness. And Vino Rosso was fourth in the Belmont after finishing ninth in the Derby.
This past weekend, Hofburg scored an easy victory in the Curlin Stakes, Tenfold and Vino Rosso finished first and third, respectively, in the Jim Dandy Stakes, and Good Magic and Bravazo finished first and second, respectively, in the Haskell Invitational.
So, unless we have a super effort by Catholic Boy returning to the dirt or a powerful performance by the filly Wonder Gadot, it looks as if the Triple Crown horses defeated by Justify will dominate the Travers. The question is, are all these horses good, mediocre, or below average? The answer will determine what caliber of horses Justify defeated and how we perceive his competition.
If we get a big effort from several of these in a fast-run race with excellent speed figures, something we haven’t seen yet, then that will answer another question about Justify and give us an idea just what kind of competition he was facing in the Triple Crown. And we should know even more when some of these face older horses later in the year.
The more boxes we check off, the brighter the Justify comet will be in years to come. And one of those boxes is the Travers Stakes. Yes, absence can make the heart grow fonder, but it can also cause one’s memory to fade. For now, it is Justify’s vanquished opponents that can help check off another box and add to his legacy.
For now I leave you with the closing line of the movie The Usual Suspects:
“And like that–poof–he’s gone!”
Justify is gone way too soon, and how he will be remembered is something we won’t know until we assess this crop of 3-year-olds and the quality of competition they provided for a physically spectacular horse whose accomplishments, although brief, were truly unique.