Billy Reed: Justify's early retirement the right call, but another miss for the sport

Billy Reed: Justify's early retirement the right call, but another miss for the sport
Justify. (Source: Dan Dry File Photo)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Billy Reed (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The premature retirement of Justify is only the latest example of thoroughbred racing's unique dilemma. It is a business more than a sport. And that can break the hearts of those who appreciate the majesty of the animals and the opportunity to bet on them.

The reason given for the brilliant colt's retirement was a filling in his ankles that would prevent him from competing in the fall races. Cynics also pointed out that it was a smart business move because Justify would never be worth much more than he's worth right now.

Looking at it from a risk-reward standpoint, try to calculate the value of being the first Triple Crown winner to be retired while still unbeaten against the possibility of defeat or injury in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga or the Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

What would you do? The welfare of the horse always should come first. At least, it should.

The only other colt to win the Triple Crown while still unbeaten was Seattle Slew in 1977. Trainer Billy Turner wanted to give him a long rest after the Belmont Stakes, but the owners ordered Turner to send Slew to Hollywood Park for what promised to be an easy and lucrative win. Instead, he suffered his first loss to J.O. Tobin.

As for the other Triple Crown winners since Citation in 1948, both Secretariat and American Pharoah ran to the end of their 3-year-old campaigns, and Affirmed and Slew ran as 4-year-olds. All were healthy when they retired.

Like all the others, Justify developed a huge following that wanted more. Whenever he ran, he would have fired up crowds and brought network TV coverage. Like every sport, racing needs heroes. But only in racing are the heroes often snatched away, for business reasons, sometimes even before they've reached their prime.

Justify's racing career lasted 111 days.

Think about that. From nobody to immortal in 111 days. That can happen in no other sport that comes to mind.

Consider, if you will, iconic figures such as Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Derek Jeter. They were, or are, on the big stage for a long time. The nation's sports fans had ample opportunity to know them and marvel at their skills.

But 111 days? Justify, we hardly knew ye.

The shortness of his career means it's impossible to mention him high on racing's list of the all-time best. He did a lot with his time, maybe more than any horse has ever done, but he didn't do enough.

He's not even the most accomplished Triple Crown winner of this century because American Pharoah won the Breeders Cup Classic in his final start. Nevertheless, Justify will be a money machine in the breeding shed because everybody is going to want to breed a mare to an unbeaten Triple Crown champion.

In the short time he was with us, Justify dazzled us with good looks and running style. He earned our respect by winning the Kentucky Derby in the rain and the Preakness in the fog. He completed the Triple Crown with an authoritative win in the Belmont.

He was trained beautifully by Bob Baffert and ridden perfectly by Mike Smith. He did everything that was asked of him, and did it with style and grit. But to be mentioned with Man o' War, Citation, Secretariat, Slew and others, he needed to do more.

The filling in his ankles disappointed the owners, but it also made their lives infinitely easier. Now they have no decisions to make about where to race him next. Now they know they are sending a sound horse to stud instead of risking the chance of a fatal injury on the track.

The folks who run Churchill Downs have to be especially disappointed. They are playing host to the Breeders Cup this year, and the Classic would have been Justify's final race. Had he stayed unbeaten and uninsured, the hype would have been off the charts. So would have the international betting.

But the game will go on. It always does. New stars will shine in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. Still, make no mistake, Justify will be sorely missed. He moved emotions in us that only the great ones can move.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular  columns to WAVE3.com.

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