LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Justify has his doubters, to be sure. And with a 37-year Triple Crown drought having been broken by American Pharoah just three years ago, maybe there’s a little less drama building up to Justify’s bid for the feat in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

But in several ways, his journey to this point is far more improbable than American Pharoah’s, and among the most improbable in the sport's history. Should Justify complete the feat, it will stand as one of the more remarkable accomplishments in the history of the Triple Crown, and not just because he would join Seattle Slew as only the second unbeaten Triple Crown champion.

Only time provides the proper perspectives of these horses within the full context of thoroughbred racing greatness. But should Justify wind up winning the Triple Crown, his road to that feat would have been among the more impressive — and difficult — of any to achieve it.

Several reasons why:

1. Number of competitors. No Triple Crown winner has beaten more than seven challengers in the Belmont Stakes. By the time a colt has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the task of taking him on at a mile-and-a-half isn’t one a great number of challengers have embraced.

The average number of Belmont competitors beaten by the 12 previous Triple Crown winners has been only 4 1/2. American Pharoah beat seven, which ties the record for most ever beaten by a Triple Crown winner.

But look even further back. Secretariat faced only four Belmont challengers; Whirlaway faced just three others and Count Fleet two.

Now, quantity doesn’t always equal quality. Affirmed had to beat only four others to win the Triple Crown in 1978, but one of them was eventual Hall of Famer Alydar — who finished second to Affirmed in all three legs.

Still, in general, the more competition one faces, the more that can happen. Ten are entered in Saturday’s race. If they all go to the post in the Belmont and Justify manages to prevail, no one will have beaten a larger field to win the Triple Crown.

1A. Number of competitors, Part 2. In addition to overcoming what would be the largest Belmont field to win a Triple Crown, Justify, if the number of Belmont entries holds, would have defeated the largest number of competitors over all three of the races on the road to the Triple Crown.

American Pharoah beat 31 competitors over the three races, tying Assault for second-most.

War Admiral, son of Man o’War, beat 19 others in the Derby, seven in the Preakness and six in the Belmont. The 32 horses he beat on the Triple Crown trail is the record.

Justify is on pace to beat 35 -- 19 in the Kentucky Derby, seven in the Preakness and nine in the Belmont.

(As a side note, Justify also would have to beat colts trained by four former winners of the Belmont with a total of nine wins, including four-time winner Wayne Lukas, three-time winner Todd Pletcher and single-time winners Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen. Of the 10 colts in the field, nine will be saddled by a trainer who has won a Triple Crown race, and seven by a Belmont winner.)

2. Track conditions. No matter what kind of shape the Belmont Park main track is in for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Justify has run through more mud on the Triple Crown trail than all but one of the 12 previous Triple Crown winners.

Citation, in 1948, raced on a track rated sloppy in the Kentucky Derby and heavy in the Preakness. He ran the Derby in 2:05.4 and the Preakness in 2:02.4. Justify ran the Derby in 2:04.2, on the wettest Derby day ever, and the Preakness in 1:55.93. His aggregate time in the two races was more than seven seconds faster than Citation’s.

Only four Triple Crown winners have won the Kentucky Derby in a slower time than Justify’s 2:04.20 (not counting Sir Barton, who ran the races at different distances). 

But think about this. Despite the track conditions at the Preakness, Justify’s time of 1:55.93 would be the fourth-fastest among Triple Crown winners if he were to go on and capture the crown, slower only than Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew among those who have run the race at the current distance of 11 furlongs.

But let’s compare sloppy track performances.

His Derby time was two seconds faster than the average of the only two Triple Crown winners to win the Derby over a sloppy surface, Assault and Citation. And compared to the average of the only two who have won the Preakness over a sloppy track — Citation and American Pharoah — Justify’s winning time is a pretty substantial 4.5 seconds better.

And finally, despite running over off tracks in the first two legs, his combined Kentucky Derby and Preakness time — 240.53 seconds — would be the fifth-fastest among Triple Crown winners if he could complete the feat in the Belmont; only Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Whirlaway among Triple Crown winners have run the first two legs faster.

And if it’s an off track at the Belmont, he’d be the only one to face off tracks in all three legs. In fact, after some considerable research, Jon White on his XBTV blog, says that all three legs of the Triple Crown have been on wet tracks just once in history — and that was 120 years ago.

3. Adversity at age 2. No Triple Crown winner, it nearly goes without saying, was unraced at age 2. Justify would be the first. He got a slow start because he had what amounted to a minor knee surgery as a yearling. His debut was further slowed by a pulled muscle suffered as a 2-year-old at WinStar Farm.

After winning the Derby, he showed signs of some soreness in his left hind foot while walking on gravel outside the barn in front of reporters and photographers. He wound up being diagnosed with a bruised heel. A three-quarter shoe and later a protective patch were used to treat the condition, and he went on to show no signs of a problem in the Preakness.

He’s not the first to have hiccups along (or before) the way. Assault probably had the most troubled trip to Triple Crown glory. He had a variety of illnesses and injuries as a young colt, including stepping on what was believed to be a surveyor’s stake that went through his right front hoof, causing a permanent deformity. Still, he made nine starts as a 2-year-old, even if he won only two of them.

Secretariat had his famous tooth abscess before the Wood Memorial. Two races into his 3-year-old campaign, Citation lost his regular jockey, Al Snider, when he drowned in Florida’s Everglades on a fishing trip. He was replaced by Eddie Arcaro, who had won the Triple Crown seven years earlier on Whirlaway. Count Fleet was erratic and slim as a young colt. Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, was sidelined by blood poisoning after being kicked in the leg by another horse as a 2-year-old.

Still, to win a Triple Crown after being unraced at age 2, partially a condition of circumstance and partially of modern training practices, would be an obstacle once thought insurmountable, particularly given the rigors of the early 3-year-old Triple Crown campaign, and the rarity of a colt being ready for those rigors after being so lightly raced.

4. Inexperience. As a result of his 2-year-old troubles, Justify has been in fast-forward since running his first race on May 18. From that date until June 9, the date of the Belmont Stakes, is only 111 days. He had to win his debut, prep for the Santa Anita Derby, win that stakes race, then go straight into the grueling Triple Crown quest with no race seasoning before.

At times, he has showed some of that inexperienced. He jumped a shadow or a puddle or something in the Preakness. Baffert said Justify was “a little bit fresh” his first workout after the Preakness.

Through all of that, he has found a way to win.

“You just feel sometimes that whatever comes his way, he’s going to find a way to win,” Baffert said. “. . . It’s been a fun journey for a horse that was basically a walk-on in January.”

It would make for a pretty compelling record if Justify could complete the task. Of course, he has to complete it first. And history usually bets against it.

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