In the span of two weeks, Justify, the sizable son of Scat Daddy, thrilled us twice with his speed and resiliency, most recently by winning the Preakness Stakes (G1) by a half-length over the more seasoned Bravazo, Tenfold, and last year’s champion 2-year-old male and Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) runner-up Good Magic.
Good Magic put up yet another incredible effort, pressing Justify for a mile and a sixteenth of the 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness at Pimlico and was still only beaten a length while running on the inside throughout over a main track that had taken on more than five inches of rain during the week.
Justify has gone from breaking his maiden at Santa Anita Park in his racing debut Feb. 18 to having won two thirds of the Triple Crown in a span of just 90 days. The poise, resolve, and street smarts this horse has shown in such a short period of time is incredible.
But these are different days.
Horses in this century make fewer starts than those of other eras, but even American Pharoah, winner of the 2015 Triple Crown—the first in 37 years—had a pair of grade 1 wins under his belt by the time he’d made his 3-year-old debut. His first start, Aug. 9, 2014, came 193 days—more than a half-year—prior to Justify’s unveiling four years later.
While 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed didn’t make his 3-year-old debut until March 8 of that year (more than three weeks later than Justify), he made nine starts at 2, including six starts against his archrival Alydar. Affirmed made four starts at 3 prior to the Run for the Roses. That’s called “seasoning.”
Seattle Slew, the lone unbeaten Triple Crown winner made his 3-year-old debut about the same date as Affirmed, March 9, but had a foundation under him, having made three starts at 2 including a 9 3/4-length victory in the grade 1 Champagne Stakes, at that time perhaps the most important race for a juvenile.
Secretariat made nine starts as a 2-year-old, from July 4 to Nov. 18.
Citation, Triple Crown winner of 1948, was solid cast iron. Not only did he make nine starts at 2, his first three races as a sophomore came on Feb. 2, Feb. 11, and Feb. 18, facing older horses in his first two.
While Justify was turned around seemingly on a dime for an allowance optional claiming start March 11 and then the Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 7, Citation made four more starts prior to his run in the Derby.
Of note, Citation ran over a sloppy track in the Derby and a heavy track in the Preakness. Prior to 2018 that was the last time the first two legs of the Triple Crown were run over off tracks.
King Ranch’s Assault got a late start to his Triple Crown run in 1946, but made three starts in April before winning the Derby May 4.
Count Fleet, the Triple Crown winner of 1943, only had two starts at 3 prior to the Derby, but he was no Justify—Fannie Hertz’ colt went to the post 15 times at 2; the first 10 coming at six furlongs or less.
The Derby was the 24th start of Whirlaway’s career. At 3 he made two starts in February, two in March, and three in April before winning the Derby by eight lengths.
The other Triple Crown winners—War Admiral (1937), Omaha (1935), Gallant Fox (1930), and Sir Barton (1919)—also had more experience.
So many variables go into the making of a Triple Crown winner, and training, conditioning, and scheduling are among the key elements. With Justify, it seems it’s not a matter of how many days since he started racing, it’s the number of days to the June 9 Belmont Stakes (G1).