Sixteen weeks ago, no one knew what to make of Justify – except Hall of Fame horse racing trainer Bob Baffert.
He knew in February that the 3-year-old chestnut colt, who had yet to run a race, was something special.
After the horse won its first two races, he knew Justify was an amazing raw talent, capable of history.
And the horse proved his trainer prescient, winning a Triple Crown with a mesmerizing and dominant victory at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
“It was meant to be,” Baffert said.
Justify defied the difficult post position along the rail, breaking well and taking the lead within seconds. None of the other nine horses had a chance to catch him.
“I was really happy with way he got away from there,” jockey Mike Smith said.
The 4-5 favorite handled the 1.5-mile distance easily, and though runner-up Gronkowski was less than 2 lengths back, Justify never looked in danger of losing.
“I wanted to see that horse’s name up there (with the other greats) because we know he was brilliant from day one,” Baffert said. “And I am so happy for Mike Smith. There is no one more deserving than him.”
Smith said Baffert made his dreams come true.
He told reporters he had an easy ride. When he wanted Justify to run fast he would squeeze him, and when he wanted Justify to relax and fall into a rhythm, the jockey would move his hands down.
Baffert was a little nervous after the first quarter-mile when Justify went out fast. But the horses slowed down the back stretch and Baffert liked what he saw on the timer at the half-mile pole.
“I was just watching the clock. It was going to be my friend or the enemy,” Baffert said when asked about what other horses he was concerned about as the race developed.
The trainer said he worried again when Justify made a move forward in the final turn.
“I was like, ‘Oh, Mike. Oh, Mike. Don’t empty that tank,” Baffert said.
But Justify, like all the great thoroughbreds, found “another gear,” Baffert said. Justify won in 2:28.18, well off the record time of 2:24, run by Secretariat in 1973.
Baffert also trained Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. He refused comparisons between the two horses, saying they are different types of racers.
Baffert – who has won more Triple Crown races than anyone – complimented his team for helping the horse, which ran three major, testing races in five weeks.
Justify became the 13th thoroughbred to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. He has won all six races he has run this year. Only Seattle Slew in 1977 was also undefeated when he won the Triple Crown.
It was the largest Belmont field ever beaten by a Triple Crown winner.
Gronkowski, named for the NFL player, finished second, after having been last for the first half of the race. Hofburg was third.
CNN’s Homero DeLaFuente contributed to this report.