It has been widely believed since his premature retirement that Justify's competition in the Triple Crown was subpar, or let's just say downright weak. Whenever people ask me during or just after the Triple Crown what I think of the crop of 3-year-olds, or whenever they state emphatically it is a poor crop, which many have a tendency to do, I tell them to wait until these Triple Crown horses, meaning the ones still around, turn 4.
Because it’s a fact that the vast majority of horses don't peak--mentally, physically, and talent-wise--until they are 4 or even 5, I always reserve judgment until I get a clearer picture of just how good these horses are. Sure, they most likely were not at their peak form or at the top of their growth chart during the Triple Crown, but at least we one day will find out whether they were formidable opponents or not. The foundation of a top-class horse is there in the spring of a horse's 3-year-old year. It just needs to be built upon like any foundation.
Do we have any idea how great Secretariat would have been at 4? It boggles the mind to imagine what he would have accomplished as a full-grown "man" facing the likes of a much-improved Sham and Forego and the top grass horses in the country. Does anyone really think Seattle Slew and Affirmed would be ranked among the truly all-time greats had they not run at 4 when they were bigger, stronger, and faster and demonstrated on numerous occasions just how great they really were? We would have been deprived of Seattle Slew vs. Affirmed and Exceller and Affirmed vs. Spectacular Bid.
Not only did Damascus reach his peak at the end of his 3-year-old campaign and continue to reach new heights as a 4-year-old, setting a track record for 1 1/4 miles at Aqueduct under 130 pounds that still stands 51 years later, but you will not find anyone who wouldn't agree that the Dr. Fager at 4 was in another stratosphere than the Dr. Fager at 3. The same applies to fellow classmate In Reality.
I vividly recall how the 3-year-old crop of 1987 was maligned after Alysheba, a mere child then, won the Kentucky Derby in a pedestrian 2:03 1/5. But not only did Alysheba develop into a great horse at 4, we also saw the development of fellow 3-year-olds such as Bet Twice, Java Gold, Lost Code, Gulch, Gone West, Afleet, Cryptoclearance, and Polish Navy. By 1988 it was considered one of the greatest crops of all time.
Look what Arrogate, who no one ever unheard of during the Triple Crown, turned into. Look what California Chrome turned into as a 5-year-old or Gun Runner as a late 4-year-old and early 5-year-old. Of the last 17 Horses of the Year, only five were 3-year-olds.
One of those five was Justify. Who did he beat, many asked.
Well, even though it is only late May, let's take a look at the horses Justify defeated and see how the crop stacks up now compared with a year ago.
- Vino Rosso and Lone Sailor finished first and third in the grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
- Quip and Lone Sailor finished first and secnd in the grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.
- Good Magic, Bravazo, and Lone Sailor finished first, secnd, and third in the grade 1 Haskell Invitational.
- Tenfold, Flameaway, and Vino Rosso finished first, second, and third in the grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes.
- Tenfold won the grade 3 Pimlico Special.
- Gronkowski finished second, beaten a nose, in the Dubai World Cup.
- Mendelssohn and Bravazo finished secnd and third in the grade 1 Travers Stakes.
- Bravazo finished second in the grade 1 Clark Handicap (beaten a half-length) and third in the grade 1 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, both against older horses.
- Mendelssohn finished third in the grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses and the grade 2 Dwyer Stakes; and was fourth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths, in the grade 1 Cigar Mile against older horses. He also was beaten only 4 1/2 lengths in the grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic and prior to the Triple Crown won the UAE Derby (G2) by 18 1/2 lengths
- Lone Sailor won the Oklahoma Derby and finished second in the Ohio Derby and Super Derby.
- Promises Fulfilled and Firenze Fire finished first and third in the grade 1 Allen Jerkens Stakes.
- Firenze Fire won the grade 3 Dwyer Stakes by nine lengths.
- Promises Fulfilled won the grade 2 Phoenix Stakes against older horses and the grade 3 Amsterdam Stakes.
- Instilled Regard finished third in the grade 1 Hollywood Derby.
- Audible was sidelined after winning the listed Cherokee Run Stakes, finishing a close second in the grade 3 Harlan's Holiday Stakes, and fifth, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, in the Dubai World Cup.
- Although Justify never faced multiple grade 1 winner on dirt (Travers) and grass (Belmont Derby) Catholic Boy, he did defeat Flameaway, who beat Catholic Boy in the Tampa Bay Derby, and Mendelssohn and Bravazo, who finished second and third to him in the Travers.
No one is claiming this is a great crop. But there is no denying that a great many of the horses Justify defeated have gone on to win or place in a number of top-class races. How many Triple Crowns have produced horses who went on to win or place in 16 grade 1 stakes before the end of the following May?
While they obviously improved as they got older, imagine what Justify would have been like as a late 3-year-old or 4-year-old. Being very lightly raced and still learning and developing physically and mentally, he was the only unseasoned and inexperienced horse to ever sweep the Triple Crown, having no 2-year-old foundation and only three career starts heading into the Kentucky Derby.
If you are not a fan of Justify for whatever reason, that is certainly your prerogative. But if you still believe he beat inferior horses in the Triple Crown, to that I say there is nothing on which to base that. The above facts speak for themselves.