Billy Reed: In old New York, Justify proves he's the hero America needs right now

Billy Reed: In old New York, Justify proves he's the hero America needs right now
Trainer Bob Baffert showed off his Derby-winner Justify on the backside of Churchill Downs on May 6. Justify would become the 13th horse to complete the Triple Crown on June 9. (Source: Billy Reed)
Congrats, Justify!
Congrats, Justify!
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won the Triple Crown for the second time in three calendar years.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won the Triple Crown for the second time in three calendar years.
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – Start spreading the news. The good guys won a big one just outside New York, New York. Up in equine heaven, Secretariat nodded knowingly and sipped a little champagne.

This isn't to say that Justify's performance in the 2018 Triple Crown races, capped by Saturday's wire-to-wire victory in the Belmont Stakes, should be compared with Secretariat's tour de force in 1973.

No horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont as magically as Secretariat did, and it says here none ever will. But on another level, America needed Justify as much this year as it needed Secretariat 45 years ago.

In 1973, the nation was in turmoil over such matters as Vietnam, Watergate, and the civil-rights movement. We were a nation divided, just as we are now. But then here came this big red horse to give the country a hero just when it needed it most.

When Secretariat completed his 31-length victory in the Belmont, it ended a 25-year draught without a Triple Crown winner. Justify's run to glory came only three years after American Pharoah ended a 0-for-37 Triple Crown winless streak, so it wasn't as if the crowd was as desperate as it was in 1973.

Still, did you see that raucous celebration that began as soon as jockey Mike Smith and Justify hit the finish line, a couple of lengths in front of the longshot Gronkowski? You couldn't tell the winners from the losers. Everybody was unified in their admiration of the excellence they had just witnessed.

For a sport that clearly isn't what it used to be in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, only thoroughbred racing can move the public the way Justify did Saturday in making the Belmont's famed "Test of Champions" look like a stroll through Central Park.

It probably has a lot to do with the beauty and majesty of the thoroughbred, but it also involves the character traits that almost all race horses share, particularly honesty and courage. The only time a thoroughbred doesn't give his or her best is when humans corrupt them.

Like Secretariat, Justify is a big red horse, breathtaking to behold. It's as if trainer Bob Baffert called central casting at one of the Hollywood movie studios and said, "Send me the perfect horse." When the sun catches his coat just so, he's such a picture that the photographers go crazy trying to capture him at just the right light.

But a horse show is one thing, a Triple Crown race something entirely different. A lot of handsome horses, some of whom cost millions of dollars, can't run a lick. But this one has never been beaten in six starts, and he didn't even make his first start until February of this year.

He won the Derby on the rainiest day in the 143-year-old race's history, and he won the Preakness in the fog. But Saturday he finally caught a nice day and a firm track, and the result was the most authoritative of his Triple Crown triumphs.

Even the beer vendors knew what Smith was going to do in the Belmont. He was going to take Justify straight to the lead and leave the decision-making to the other riders.

If they tried to run with him, chances are they would be staggering by the time the field turned for home. If they took back, however, and let Justify have an easy lead, they would run the risk of traffic problems or making their move when it was too late.

Smith couldn't have drawn up the race any better. The pace was decent, but not killing. A couple of horses came up to Justify's withers on the backstretch, but nobody seriously threatened to go past him. As Justify turned into the long Belmont stretch, Smith had to know that nobody was going to catch him.

Gronkowski, named for New England Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski, made a modest move to get up for second, but all he did, mainly, was screw up a lot of exactas and trifectas. Hofburg, second choice in the betting, never threatened.

It was another textbook ride for Smith, 52, who became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame some 15 years ago, he told friends he hadn't done enough to deserve it. But after the Belmont, questioned how he felt about it now, Smith grinned and allowed that, yeah, he probably has now done enough.

Baffert got his second Triple Crown in four years, tying him with Jim "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons at the top of the trainers' list. Ben A. Jones, who trained Calumet Farm's Whirlaway to the 1941 Triple Crown, also could be on there, but he let his son Jimmy have the credit for Citation's Triple Crown in 1948.

The owners are a business cartel led by the China Racing Group. Their partners include Kentucky's Winstar Farm and a Louisville-based group, Starlight Stable, headed by Jack Wolf. Starlight shares in the colt's racing profits, but has no stake in his breeding rights, which should be considerable.

When Seattle Slew became the first unbeaten colt to win the Triple Crown in 1977, trainer Billy Turner wanted to send him to the farm after the Belmont and give him a well-deserved rest. But when Hollywood Park jacked up the purse for its Swaps Stakes, the colt's owners, apparently believing that Slew was invincible, ordered Turner to send him to California, where he suffered his first loss in a race won by J.O. Tobin.

Rest assured that Baffert will not allow that to happen to Justify. He's gone 6-0 since early February, including a Triple Crown series that was hardly run under ideal conditions in Louisville and Baltimore, and Baffert will make certain his superstar gets plenty of rest between now and the Breeders' Cup Classic in early November at Churchill Downs.

In these troubled times, both in the sports world and the real world, we are in desperate need of feel-good stories that unify and uplift us. They don't seem to come along as often as they did in more innocent times, but we certainly got one in the Belmont and it felt good.

Start spreading the news.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to

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