On Saturday, the racing world got it’s answer to the question of whether two Triple Crown winners were possible in a four-year span.
Our second Triple Crown winner in a decade. After a 37-year-drought that was ended by American Pharoah, another Triple Crown winner wasn’t even conceivable until Saturday night. The author grew up with a generation of fans who missed the sweep of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed and the previous marathon of Triple Crown winners in the ‘30s and ‘40s was an even further reach than the ‘70s trio. Those of us born after the golden eras of racing had our hearts broken, and our hopes dashed when Birdstone stole the Crown away from Smart Jones in 2004. We felt further disillusionment with Big Brown, and I’ll Have Another. By the time California Chrome came around in 2014, we knew the feat was impossible. Triple Crowns were the things of myths and legends, echoes of the times long gone in the Sport of Kings.
But then came American Pharoah with his swift, graceful strides that started to carry the murmurs and whispers of hope. The son of Pioneerof the Nile was the Champion 2-Year-Old the year before, already putting him in the hoofprints of past giants like Count Fleet and Affirmed in their paths to greatness. The Zayat home-bred swept through his Kentucky Derby campaign, winning both the Rebel and Arkansas Stakes which secured him as the 5-2 morning line favorite for “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Pharoah won convincingly in the Derby, danced through the mud at Pimlico as the heavens descended down and soared to immortality in a 5 ½ length lead in the Belmont. We had seen it. The impossible had happened. The drought was over. Those of us born after 1978 said we had seen a Triple Crown winner. The joy in Larry Colmus’ voice was tangible, his voicing raising as he decreed, “And here it is. The 37-year wait is over. American Pharaoh is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” And the author, who was on a mountain somewhere in West Virginia, could feel the triumph and the ecstatic jubilation of the ninety-thousand people who packed into Belmont Park on that first Saturday in June.
So it happened. We had our Triple Crown winner, and we could rest assured of our place in history, remembering where exactly we were when American Pharaoh swept the Crown and embellishing a tale to tell our children and future race fans alike one day. The following years dawned with another cast of horses who paled to our earlier hero: Nyquist, the 2015 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner, showed up to win the Kentucky Derby and then after a brief rivalry with Exaggerator in the Preakness and scratch in the Belmont, the colt never returned to his previous form and was retired before the Breeder’s Cup that year. Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby in 2017 and struggled to secure a win after that. It was discovered that Pletcher-trained son of Bodemeister suffered from stomach ulcers and despite a return to racing last month, Always Dreaming has yet to win a race despite a promising debut in the Hardacre Mile. With our Triple Crown memories falling behind us, we remember Pharoah and the realization hit again and again that we had hit gold in 2015. Never again would we see his equal in this generation. Who knew how long this new drought would last?
And then a hard-colt hit the ground running at Santa Anita, shrugging off accomplished runners like Bolt D’oro in the Santa Anita Derby. He came not knocking on the doors of opportunity but rattling them at Churchill Downs, demanding to be seen and known for his greatness as he waved away the accomplishment of a deep three-year-old class. Nobody could catch the son of Scat Daddy as he persevered through the slop to the finish line with the Champion 2-Year-Old and Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic struggling to keep up with him. When Justify came to Baltimore, again he ran through the mud and the fog to prove that he was still the best of a generation and perhaps a worthy heir to American Pharoah. For the first time in three years, we started to dream again. What if? All one has to do is remember the golden days of Secretariat and Slew and Affirmed. When a victor has claimed both jewels as valiantly as Justify had, you can’t help but hope. Despite an unraced two-year-season, the colt had seen 5 starts over a 12 week period. Where we were racing in the age of great trainers like Ben Jones or Sunny Fitzsimmons, it wouldn’t be an uncommon feat. But this the age where a horse will race a few times a year, and we waited, waiting for the signs of exhaustion and fatigue to take their toll on the chestnut equine equivalent of Adonis.
But Justify continued to breathe fire, proceeded to ask for more and never gave those signs that he was anything less than the horse he has been. He had only known victory, and there was no indication that he expected anything less when he danced in front of an enthusiastic crowd in New York, ready to deliver the performance that they knew he was capable of giving. As he broke away with Mike Smith aboard for the third time, Justify went for the lead and never looked back, his coppery coat shining like a new penny compared to the field behind him, covered in the sand that Belmont Park is so well known for. There had been moments of trepidation, of that sinking fear that perhaps greatness wasn’t destined for today. After all, there had been others so worthy of the Triple Crown who had fallen short in the heat of battle. Spectacular Bid. Point Given. Smarty Jones. So many close calls that were supposed to be and never were because of circumstances bestowed from those sometimes fickle ‘racing gods.’
But the stars aligned and the fates agreed and Justify crossed the finish line first, fighting off a hard-charging Gronkowksi and a late attempt from Hofburg. Like American Pharoah only a three years before, the crowd jumped and laughed and cried and danced and went wild with the jubilation that they had seen another impossible thing. Bob Baffert had done it again, those close misses with Silver Charm and Real Quiet and War Emblem a dress rehearsal for the real thing – American Pharaoh and Justify. Despite the days that have passed, it remains an almost surreal thought. Another Triple Crown winner. So many of us believed we’d never see one Triple Crown winner, let alone two.
But we have.
We have seen greatness.
And we can’t wait to see what history might write for the 13th Triple Crown winner.