ELMONT — The backstretch at Belmont Park was buzzing with anticipation on Thursday morning.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Justify was on the grounds. On Thursday, he set foot on the track where he will try to achieve immortality in the 150th (150!) Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Bill Mott was walking his pony back to the barn when he crossed paths with fellow trainer Chad Brown. They’ll each have a horse in the Belmont trying to prevent Justify from becoming the 13th (13!) Triple Crown winner.
Mott stopped as Brown held up his cellphone to show him a photo.
Was it perhaps a shot of Justify, whom Brown later called “LeBron James, the horse”?
“That’s my brother on Saratoga Lake this week, Bill,” Brown said.
“That’s a bass,” Mott said, admiring.
Just another day at the track.
The New York Racing Association is gearing up for another Triple Crown attempt, a drill we have grown accustomed to, whether anyone won it or not.
And for well over three decades, it was not. (See: California Chrome, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, etc.)
Then American Pharoah came along in 2015 and knocked everybody’s socks off, finishing the Kentucky Derby/Preakness/Belmont triple for the first time since Affirmed in 1978. It was the greatest sporting achievement many of us had ever seen, including the 90,000 who crammed Belmont’s grandstand, clubhouse and backyard.
And now we might see it again.
Except this Triple Crown seems … different. Subdued, relatively speaking. Certainly different from that one three years ago.
And that has not much to do with the animal himself, who, on a gray, humid morning took a gallop on the Belmont main track and pulled himself around there like he’d known Big Sandy his entire (albeit short) life. It was just a routine gallop, but Justify looked magnificent. This is no fluke, this horse who happens to have something in common with the great Seattle Slew — an undefeated record heading into the Belmont.
But there are several factors why the buzz of this Triple Crown shot doesn’t crackle with the life of American Pharoah’s, and primary among them seems to be a been-there-done-that hangover from 2015.
By the time American Pharoah made his run, many who follow the sport and many who don’t had abandoned the notion that the feat could even be achieved anymore, in light of how thoroughbreds are campaigned these days, with greater spacing between races and fewer career starts.
Three races in five weeks wasn’t unusual a few decades ago, but it rarely happens now, at least not at the higher levels of the sport. There have been more than a few calls to spread the Triple Crown races out more to accommodate this trend, which I never agreed with. The Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult.
So we were all captivated when American Pharoah finally did it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Justify’s bid.
It reveals itself in media coverage, which is diminished from 2015, although the Triple Crown bump, naturally, still exists. NYRA said there were 864 credentials issued for Saturday’s race, compared to 508 last year, with no Triple Crown on the line.
There are a variety of similarities between Justify’s run-up to the Belmont and Seattle Slew’s in 1977. Of the 12 Triple Crown winners, only Slew was undefeated heading into the Belmont; Justify is 5-for-5.
But let’s examine that 5-for-5: Justify was unraced as a 2-year-old and didn’t begin racing until February, so other than the Derby and Preakness, there isn’t much for fans to latch onto and embrace.
He’s also owned by four different syndicates and won’t even wear the same silks that he wore in the first two legs. Per an agreement between WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, Justify would wear WinStar’s white-and-green for four starts, then China Horse Club’s red with gold stars would get the spotlight. Got all that? China Horse Club comes out of the on-deck circle for the Belmont.
This Triple Crown also loses some luster because the owners — who also include Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing — chose not to run Audible, the hard-charging third-place finisher in the Derby, citing a minor ailment.
That removed what would’ve been a top threat to Justify, and, oh, by the way, The New York Times has reported that a possible deal for Justify’s breeding rights could include a $25 million bonus to the owners for winning the Triple Crown. An Audible thud.
Besides the undefeated angle, another parallel between Seattle Slew and Justify is that their Triple Crowns would come shortly after another horse had broken a long, soul-sucking drought. Slew won just four years after Secretariat stopped a 24-year drought, so Slew’s will always cast a paler light than Secretariat’s.
But at the time, Seattle Slew had a following, both fans and media, that Justify couldn’t possibly equal. As Slew’s trainer Billy Turner pointed out in a conference call on Monday, his colt had run the fastest mile ever by a 2-year-old, and followed it up with a victory in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont to stamp himself as maybe the second coming of Secretariat.
Justify doesn’t have a level of charisma remotely approaching that.
“He was a threat to Secretariat as being the king, and that created a fan base that you wouldn’t believe because you had defenders of Secretariat and you had the fans of Seattle Slew,” Turner said, “and, of course, there were more newspapers covering that Triple Crown than any time in history.”
“It was a crush from the end of January until after Saratoga. It was unbelievable. There were photographers, there were reporters from the littlest newspaper in the country.”
Belmont Park will be bursting at the seams on Saturday.
Any Triple Crown attempt is a bonanza for NYRA and racing fans, and this will be no different, especially with a spectacular undercard on tap. It will always be one of my biggest privileges and thrills to cover as a writer.
But even if it’s a little unfair to Justify, who has done everything asked of him, to point out that there is less luster, the truth is the Crown, that rarest of racing feats, somehow seems just a little bit like old hat this time.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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