CRAWFORD | Returning from history, Justify is celebrated at Churchill Downs
Justify returned triumphantly, parading before thousands of fans at Churchill Downs after winning the Triple Crown.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Horse racing fans in Kentucky weren’t starving for a Triple Crown winner Saturday afternoon like they were three years ago, when thousands packed into Churchill Downs to lay eyes on something they weren’t sure they’d ever see, or ever see again.
When American Pharoah paraded in front of the Twin Spires in 2015, it had a once-in-a-lifetime feel.
But greatness has its own timetable.
And here came Justify, surrounded from the moment he ducked his head and exited Barn No. 33 for the long, hot walk over to the Churchill grandstand and paddock. They draped his Triple Crown blanket over him, but he looked more ready for a saddlecloth.
Just one week removed from putting away nine competitors in the Belmont Stakes to set a Triple Crown record not only for rivals beaten in the Belmont but in all three legs, Justify looked ready to take all comers at a mile on the dirt track on a sweltering Stephen Foster Saturday.
“He’s ready to go again,” his trainer, Bob Baffert, said. “He looks good. He’s tough. He’s like Muhammad Ali. He’s ready to rumble.”
I wouldn’t advise betting against him.
Fans came from Kentucky, from Lexington, from Morehead, from Paducah, from Murray. They came from Tennessee and Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas. They came with cameras and cell phones, extended their arms to catch a shot, craned their necks for a look, crooked their wrists for selfies.
They packed the paddock with Derby Day commotion. They carried signs, “Thank you, Justify!” and “Lucky No. 13!”
Justify, as has been noted, has a more typical thoroughbred’s Type-A temperament. His trainers don’t entirely trust him around people. They worry a bit about him getting uptight, though since winning the Triple Crown and dealing with the crowds at his barn at Belmont Park, the colt has added a good bit of patience to his resume.
He stopped at intervals while walking in the paddock to look into the crowds. We sportswriters are often guilty of ascribing human emotion or reasoning to animal, but it has to be noted: American Pharoah seemed to enjoy this kind of thing. Justify tends to tolerate it. But he has learned to tolerate it very well. Maybe I’m wrong. Horses can’t tell us.
Baffert was thinking about just that fact when he spoke to reporters after he and the colt’s owners and jockey Mike Smith were presented trophies for winning the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert, who returned to California the morning after winning the Belmont, came back to town on Friday, came to Churchill Downs, and it all began to sink in again.
“I just wanted to come here for a few days and really soak it in,” he said. “And to see the horse again. And to see the horse again, it’s like, ‘Wow. Dude.’ They can’t talk, so I’m his voice. I just hope I represent him well.”
The big question, of course, is whether Justify will be back, whether he will still be racing when the Breeders Cup comes here this fall.
Let’s put a pin in that question.
The Triple Crown deserves a full stop. It does.
This colt sprinted onto the scene, didn’t race until February, won his first race, then won all the rest. Baffert likened him to University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who entered the national title game in the second half to lead the Crimson Tide to a win. Justify arrived and conquered so quickly we hardly got to know him.
Maybe, in time, more fans will.
But he’ll likely get no more respect than he encountered Saturday night. No, fans hadn’t been hungry for a Triple Crown like they were three years ago. But that doesn’t mean they appreciated it any less.
“They love him, especially here,” jockey Mike Smith said. “For me, it’s just such an honor to get to ride a horse like this and win these races. . . . I feel like I could just jump right now and keep floating in the air.”
This kind of production is no easy thing to pull off. Justify’s owners and trainers and the entire team deserve credit. It’s a nerve wracking walk, with all of the paddock traffic and everything else. Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes looked like he’d just finished with an eight-race card by the time they walked Justify back to the barn.
The crowds cheered (Justify, ears plugged, may have heard it a little). But he quietly walked away, stopped one more time before reaching the second backside gap, then disappeared back toward his barn.
Sunday morning, he’ll head to California. He may return to Kentucky to race this fall. More than likely, he’ll return here to retire to his stallion career.
But this Saturday moment is special. It was a celebration of thoroughbred excellence, in a place that appreciates it like nowhere else.
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