ELMONT, N.Y. — As the years turned to decades and the disappointment grew to desperation, an entire generation of horse racing fans wondered if they’d ever be able to witness the kind of equine stars they knew only through grainy videos and magazine clippings.
The likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed lived only in legend, a heyday of horse racing that seemed almost like fiction because it was so divorced from the reality that the Triple Crown became from the 1980s into the ’90s and then well into the turn of a new century.
It was a pursuit that had become, frankly, more fatalistic than aspirational. Real Quiet lost in the last stride before the wire. Charismatic took a bad step and suffered a career-ending injury. I’ll Have Another scratched the day before the Belmont and never ran again. Big Brown pulled up at the top of the stretch. Bad rides, bad luck, an infinite number of excuses.
But if nearly four decades of futility elevated the Triple Crown as the most difficult feat in sports, having two winners in the last four years should do nothing to diminish it. If anything, Justify’s victory in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown winner should only give us more appreciation for what we’re watching now.
After three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s gave way to a 37-year drought, horse racing has been blessed with another burst from the cosmos. American Pharoah, it turned out, was not a one-off but rather a prelude to another big, brilliant chestnut colt, who has run six races over four different tracks in 111 days and beaten all comers, cementing his greatness by going wire-to-wire at Belmont Park.
“A horse like this just kind of happens,” said Elliott Walden, the CEO of WinStar Farm, which owns a majority share in Justify. “You can’t find these horses. They find you.”
That is, in fact, the essence of the Triple Crown. You don’t know when it’s coming. And you don’t know when it’s going happen again. It just sort of appears, like a bolt out of the sky, and the best part is that it’s unassailable every time.
Horse racing is, literally, a sport built on opinion and argument. From the beginning of civilization, people claimed their animals were faster and fitter than their neighbors, so they began racing them. Then we figured out a way bet on it, adding another layer to the conversation.
But unlike any other sport where we argue endlessly about all-time greats across different eras, horse racing has just two levels: Triple Crown winners and everyone else. To get in the band of immortals, you have to win these three races in five weeks. It doesn’t matter who your competition was or whether the times were fast or slow . You either belong there or you don’t.
“It takes a great horse,” said Bob Baffert, who joins “Sonny” Jim Fitzsimmons from the 1930s as the only trainer with two Triple Crown winners. “And I’ve been through it. There’s no excuses. If he was great, he’s going to do it. That’s why it’s so difficult. Triple Crown winners, all I can say is, they’re great.”
And that’s why anyone who says the Triple Crown has become too easy or lost value as a result of Justify winning so quickly on the heels of American Pharoah simply doesn’t understand the weight of the accomplishment or have much sense of history.
In fact, just within the past decade, there were prominent voices in the sport wondering aloud whether concessions should be made to make the Triple Crown more attainable, particularly in an era when horses race less frequently and are perceived to be more fragile.
After California Chrome lost the Belmont in 2014, his owner Steve Coburn ranted about horses skipping legs of the Triple Crown, saying it “wasn’t fair” that his horse got beat by Tonalist, who was rested and ready for the Belmont. That was always a ridiculous diatribe, but when you’ve got 36 straight Triple Crowns without a horse who’s done it, people do start to wonder whether it’s even possible.
And while it’s true that running the Kentucky Derby’s 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May, followed by the Preakness two weeks later and then the 1 1/2-mile marathon at the Belmont three weeks after that is a brutal schedule for a young horse, that’s kind of the point. It’s supposed to be so hard that only the rarest of specimens can do it.
“The durability is the thing,” Baffert said. “That’s one thing this horse has. Not only are they brilliant and fast, but they’re durable — and they have to be.”
Instead, it’s now becoming clear that while horse racing may be in the midst of a long decline in its national relevance, we are smack dab in the middle of another era like the 1970s when there were a cluster of superstars appearing almost at once.
Before Secretariat, it had been 25 years between Triple Crown wins. Then within five years, Seattle Slew and Affirmed went back-to-back. Maybe these things just tend to come in clusters.
“To be great, to be a Triple Crown winner, it takes something special,” Walden said.
We saw it three years ago when American Pharoah ran away from his competition, inspiring a roar that shook Belmont Park to its concrete and studs. And we saw it Saturday when Justify ran fast early, ran fast in the middle and ran fast late, appearing as if he could have gone around again without getting caught.
The Triple Crown has been lost enough times that we dare not question what we’re seeing now. This is greatness, plain and simple. Justify earned his place alongside the other all-time greats, a group that is never diminished by adding more members. Because as history has shown us over and over, we never know when it will happen again.