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The shadow of American Pharoah lingers over Justify's Triple Crown

Justify’s attempt at becoming the 13th horse to win racing’s Triple Crown was dripping in history. It’s why 90,327 people came to Long Island’s Belmont Park on Saturday. They wanted to witness something they have never seen before, that is unless they were at Belmont Park three years ago.

Horses are often defined by those that came before them. Seattle Slew, it was believed, was never given the proper credit because he came four years after the beloved Secretariat. And then Affirmed came one year after Seattle Slew.

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Justify will forever be linked to American Pharoah, who won the Triple Crown for trainer Bob Baffert three years ago.

Baffert, once again, was asked to compare the two.

“Durability, that’s the one thing this horse has,” Baffert said. “American Pharoah has it too. Not only are they brilliant, they’re fast, they’re durable.

“But they’re two different types. It’s like comparing your kids, which one is faster. But you know, Pharoah was my first Triple Crown winner.”

American Pharoah won his Belmont Stakes going away. Justify on the lead ran more like he was holding serve.

It was a great race for Justify, just not dramatic. Although Baffert might beg to differ.

“Going into the first turn, we saw those horses out there and I saw the 23 [seconds for the quarter-mile],” Baffert said. “Boy that was fast. But he [jockey Mike Smith] slowed it down and I saw 48 and I felt a little bit better. … And then when he made that move in the far turn, I was like, ‘Oh, Mike, Mike, don’t empty the tank.’”

There was plenty left in the tank.

The race unfolded with Justify breaking alertly and going for the lead. Around the first turn, stablemate Restoring Hope was running with him about four wide.

“Restoring Hope has natural speed,” Baffert said. “His only chance was to be up near the lead in the first wave because he’s like a one-dimensional horse.”

At the mile marker, Bravazo, who finished second to Justify in the Preakness, was also hanging around near the lead. And then Vino Rosso made a little move to close in on Justify. But, in the end, no one could catch this horse on this day.

Perhaps the best race was run by Gronkowski, who was making his first U.S. start. This was his first race not on a synthetic surface or turf. He broke horribly and spent the first half of the race in last in the 10-horse field. On the far turn he made a bold move and went into second at the top of the stretch.

He finished second, followed by Hofburg and Vino Rosso. The remainder of field was Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.

Justify’s winning time of 2:28.18 was almost four seconds slower than that of Secretariat when he broke the track record in 1973 and about 1 ½ seconds slower than American Pharoah.

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The time should do little damage to the reputation of Justify. It was somewhat by design.

“I was able to go ahead and get a comfortable lead and just let him get into that rhythm of his, which he did very well,” Smith said. “The first quarter was a little bit quick, but then after that he down and got into a great rhythm. I just kept a leg on each side at that point with me in the middle. When I asked him, he dug in.”

Smith used the whip three times in the stretch.

Bill Mott, who trained Hofburg, was a little tempered in his praise.

“There was no pace and nobody put any pressure on the horse and he kind of walked the dog going around there,” Mott said. “Mike is great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse. I mean, they’re a good combination and get the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner. A lot of people are happy about it.”

Indeed, people were happy about it, but although the roar of the crowd was loud, it was not as loud as when American Pharoah won.

Still, Baffert couldn’t stop praising his second Triple Crown champion.

“I think the public fell in love,” he said. “He is one of the most beautiful horses, big chestnut. Every trainer is trying to get [a horse like that.] Big Red, Secretariat, he set the bar and we’re trying to get there and I think people love these horses.”

Time will determine how much love Justify gets as he runs out his 3-year-old campaign. American Pharoah dropped a notch when he lost in the Travers Stakes later in the year. But, he regained a lot when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Exactly what path Justify will take is up in the air. But one thing you can count on is the path will intersect with that of American Pharoah, at least in everyone’s mind.

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