BOZICH | One more hill (the Belmont Stakes) for Justify to climb
Justify has one more hill to climb to win the Triple Crown at Belmont Park Saturday, but the colt's road to greatness began on another hill at Winstar Farm in Versailles, Ky.
VERSAILLES, Ky. (WDRB) — At WinStar Farm they talk incessantly about The Hill — and it isn’t the mammoth mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes hill Justify must cover Saturday in New York City to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown.
This hill is considerably shorter — 5/8ths of a mile.
It is a narrow, quiet, obscure, synthetic strip of racing surface tucked behind the training track on the vast and verdant 2,700-square acre WinStar Farm racing operation.
Saturday Justify will have to stamp his greatness against eight or nine horses, in front of 90,000 or more raucous fans at Belmont Park. Thirteen months ago at WinStar the colt had to do it against one horse in front of five people.
“We have a flat race track that’s seven-eighths of a mile,” WinStar president Elliott Walden said. “We also have a five-eighths of a mile uphill gallop that we adopted from our trip to Coolmore (Farm) in Ireland. We went over and took back some of the good things we saw that they were doing.
“The theory on training up the hill is for horses to strengthen their hind end, and not be pounding so much on the front end,” said Richard Budge, the farm trainer for the 500 or so horses based at WinStar.
It was time for Justify to deliver on the hype. Touted by Walden and others at WinStar as the farm’s No. 1 draft pick at the 2016 Keeneland September Sale, Justify fetched $500,000 as Hip 50 in the sales ring about eight months earlier. Dozens of more expensive horses sold that week, but Walden was convinced Justify was more athletic, balanced and talented than any of them.
It was time for the colt, a son of the formidable stallion Scat Daddy, to run to his pedigree. Until that day, he hadn’t.
Maybe it was the minor arthroscopic surgery to one of his legs prior to the sale. Maybe Justify was a late developer. Maybe he simply wasn’t going to be the runner Walden, Budge and others were convinced he could be. It happens.
But at WinStar, they needed to know. Walden had to decide which Hall of Fame trainer (Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert or Bill Mott) would work with Justify as the colt’s racing career unfolded.
They took Justify and another young horse to The Hill. There are two stories about the date. Walden thought it was February 2017. Budge told me it was more likely April or May. There is one story about Justify’s performance.
“We let him pick it up, up that hill,” Walden said. “The horse working next to him was working as hard as he could to keep up. (Justify) looked like he took four strides to get from the bottom of the top.”
“Everybody was just like, ‘Wow!’ “ Budge said. “The Wow factor. Everybody’s jaw dropped. What was that? The rider came back and he just compared him to (2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner) California Chrome. He said this horse is unbelievable.
"The distance of ground that he covered. His stride looks a little bit like Secretariat, big, long stride. And he did it so effortlessly. That was the key."
“It was an ‘A-Ha!’ moment,” Walden said.
Make that the first A-Ha! Moment for a horse who has shown the ability to do what only the great horses can do — string multiple A-Ha! Moments over months.
A pulled muscle kept Justify at WinStar until late summer. He left WinStar for Keeneland in late September 2017. Trainer Rodolphe Brisset got him ready to compete and focus the way a race horse has to do it, but only over three-eighths of a mile. From there he moved to Baffert’s barn. Walden picked Baffert (and his four Derby wins) over Pletcher (who trains the majority of WinStar’s runners) or Mott (whose specialty is older horses).
“I get asked that a lot,” Walden said. “It’s hard for me to really say what (it was). It’s intuition. I don’t feel like I can make a wrong choice. It’s like having coach (John) Calipari and (Duke coach) Mike Krzyzewski. That’s who we’ve got on the team … it’s not magic. It’s just putting horses in a good trainer’s hands and seeing what happens.”
Can the trainers watch the top WinStar draft picks train at the farm— typically 20 candidates from the Keeneland sale — and make a request?
“No,” Walden said. “They are appreciative of what we send them and they trust us to send them (good horses). Sometimes it works out.”
But even when it works out, it does not always work out how it is envisioned in the playbook.
Justify went to Baffert in early November, about the time of the Breeders’ Cup. Baffert is based at Santa Anita in suburban Los Angeles but his 2-year-olds begin work at Los Alamitos in Orange County, California. Los Alamitos is 33 miles from Baffert’s primary operation, but Walden wonders if Baffert made the drive to watch Justify until early January, after the colt finished his 2-year-old year without a race. No Kentucky Derby winner had been unraced at 2 since Apollo in 1882.
Later that month Walden stopped in California to talk to Baffert as Walden made his way to Australia. He told him it was time to take a serious look at Justify. Baffert promised that he would.
A week later, Baffert finally called back.
"He calls me and says, 'Man, this horse is really awesome,'" Walden said.
"I said, 'I’ve been telling you that you need to get him over there.' It’s just a product of how (Baffert) works through it. Then he started really zeroing in on getting him ready."
A maiden win by Justify at Santa Anita in February ignited the hype. An allowance win in March got more people talking. But it was a stirring victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in April where Justify made himself the favorite for the first Saturday in May. He won that prestigious prep race by leading from nearly gate to wire. He defeated Bolt D’Oro, a colt many had been touting as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
“The Santa Anita Derby was a really big race for us because at the stallion farm we want horses to win Grade I races,” Walden said. “That was his first Grade I. It just kind of takes the pressure off.”
The pressure has returned. With the great ones, it always does. Justify guaranteed that. He did it with his powerful winning performances in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore May. 19.
“To me, he's imposing,” Budge said. “I think imposing. When you watched him gallop, his stride is just unbelievable. You've probably seen some pictures of him from Derby and Preakness. He just covers a lot of ground. He does everything so effortlessly.”
Justify will travel to New York City this week, primed for magazine covers, champagne and membership with Secretariat, American Pharoah and 10 other horses in one of the most exclusive clubs in sports, racing’s Triple Crown winners.
All Justify has to do is climb to the top of one final hill.
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