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Justify a slice of heaven for racing

Justify a slice of heaven for racing

In less than four months, Justify came from out of the fog and into the light to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.
Justify a slice of heaven for racing
Justify is walked back to the barn after winning the Belmont and Triple Crown Saturday.
Photographer: Mike MacAdam/Gazette Sportswriter

ELMONT -- Then it was quiet.

The chestnut horse with the white blaze all the way down to his right nostril walked calmly down the track on Saturday evening, the gigantic Belmont Park grandstand -- crammed with raucous, celebrating people -- receding in the background.

A brilliantly sunny sky all day had surrendered to warm, placid gray cloud cover, a theater backdrop subtly shifting when you hadn't even noticed.

And the spotlight operator in the rafters did his finest work, spraying pale shafts of sunlight out of the gray down onto the horse.

Hell, I couldn't help but crack up.

At that moment, there was no glittering crown, no trappings of historical import, no ostentatious trophy -- just a horse whose royalty spoke for itself.

It didn't take much for the absurdity of the moment to hit me as I jogged through the sand in dress shoes along the outside rail to stay ahead of Justify as he was walked back to the barn shortly after he had won the 150th Belmont Stakes, and with it the 13th Triple Crown.

The sound person responsible for the choir of angels was asleep at the switch, but otherwise the tableau spoke to what a gift this horse has been to racing since his career began -- 112 days ago.

I want to scream into a pillow until my ears bleed whenever an athlete claims divine intervention or that a favorable outcome proves the existence of God, but when jockey Mike Smith said of Justify, "He's sent from heaven," for once it didn't sound like a hollow cliche.

We're allowed to define heaven in broad terms, anyway.

On Saturday, heaven was a massive old racetrack washed by sunshine, after the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, were coated in rain, mud and fog.

Justify burst through all of that, then burst out of the Belmont Park starting gate and did what he does, which is challenge the constitution of everybody else with a come-get-me running style that so far has proven unbeatable.

His career dropped on the racing world at Santa Anita Park in California on Feb. 18, a 9 1/2-length maiden win that was the first of six rungs up the ladder to immortality -- allowance, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont.

Before Justify was a proven stakes winner, Schenectady's Don Lucarelli found himself in possession of a small share in the colt, as his ownership group, Starlight Racing, made a deal to buy a minority interest.

On Saturday, Lucarelli was at his daughter Josepha's house in Duanesburg for a long-planned double-birthday celebration. It got loud in that family room shortly before 7 p.m.

"Everybody was screaming and yelling," Lucarelli said by phone. "Nobody could ever write that story, that that could possibly happen.

"We really didn't have a 3-year-old who would be serious for the classics, which is what we're trying to do. [Co-managing partner] Jack [Wolf] was able to forge the deal, and thank God, because that's not something that you're going to repeat as an owner."

"You buy 'em and everything, but a horse like this just kind of happens," said Elliott Walden, racing manager for one of the majority owners, WinStar Farm. "You can't find these horses; they find you."

This Triple Crown attempt was decidedly more subdued from the rollicking circus of 2015, when American Pharoah finally soothed the tormented souls of racing fans who had waited almost four decades for another Triple Crown.

During the prep season in late winter and early spring, the 3-year-old male division appeared to be pretty balanced, and the odds were better that we would have a repeat of 2017, when three different horses won the three legs. (All three of those horses are winless since.)

Then Justify happened, like a lightning bolt crashing from the sky.

On Saturday, there was a not-so-subtle shift in volume as he came around the second turn. People don't clap anymore, because their hands are occupied with cellphone cameras over their heads, but vocal chords still work, and everyone tested the limits of theirs as Justify stormed down the stretch, unthreatened from behind.

He blasted through the finish line, touching off a wild celebration that rattled the rafters. Justify and Smith got their picture taken in the crowded winner's circle, and trainer Bob Baffert later admitted to weeping during a post-race interview.

Then it was quiet.

And that was something to be grateful for, too.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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