Midafternoon Saturday, Justify will step on a race-day surface in front of a big crowd for the last time. His time racing was just 112 days. Only 46 days after his last race it was announced he is retiring. But the number his name will most be associated with is 13, since only 12 before him have won the Triple Crown.
The ceremonial walk around the paddock and eventually onto the dirt track at Del Mar is certain to be emotional, especially to the two people who had to make the decision to remove him from racing.
Trainer Bob Baffert acknowledges he’ll be sad. Elliott Walden, managing partner of the ownership group, says it will be great.
“We’ve been in denial,” Baffert said. “It’ll be sad. But he won the Triple Crown and you have to be a great horse to do it. We’ve enjoyed the moment. It was an incredible run.”
Walden, who is chief executive and president of WinStar Farm, the majority owner, has flown in from Kentucky to watch the ceremony.
“It’s going to go great,” Walden said. “I’m a firm believer that all things happen for a reason. I’m sad that he’s not going to run again but I have no remorse. We have nothing to complain about.”
Ultimately, Baffert made the decision to no longer run the horse. It wasn’t so much injury as not having enough time to prepare him for a run-up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic before his scheduled retirement. Walden said there was never a thought of running him as a 4-year-old.
An injury to Justify’s left front ankle was never serious, just some swelling that would heal with time. Baffert isn’t sure when it happened, although he thought the toll of the Belmont’s 1½ miles could have been the start of it.
“The mile and a half at Belmont can be tough,” Baffert said. “They can just do something in a race that long. We thought he came out of the race well. Or maybe he did it [when he shipped back] at Santa Anita. It was just one of those things.”
Justify was given about 10 days off after the Belmont before returning to training at Santa Anita.
The plan was to run him in the Haskell this Sunday, at Monmouth and possibly the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 25 before closing his career at the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs.
“The Haskell was always the first option and then the Travers,” Walden said. “I don’t know if he would have run in both, but it was an option.”
It was during the training at Santa Anita that some swelling in his ankle was discovered.
“We had it under control,” Baffert said. “He was never sore. We thought he just wrenched it, but it looked good. But it [the swelling] came back a little bit. I didn’t want to do anything if it wasn’t completely gone. The window was closing on us.”
The ownership group eventually put out a news release, an unusual move, two weeks ago to say Justify was being removed from training for evaluation.
“I was getting a lot of pressure,” Baffert said. “The Haskell wanted to know if we were coming and we didn’t want to hold anyone up. A lot of people wanted to see him run and wanted to make plans.”
Baffert’s plan was to hold off for two weeks and hope for the best.
“I knew if we had to send him to the farm for a break, it was over,” Walden said.
The news was not good. During that time the swelling did not sufficiently go down and Baffert knew the inevitable.
“It was day to day,” Baffert said. “But this last week, we decided it just wasn’t going to happen. He was not going to be 100% in time.”
On Wednesday, Baffert called Walden to give him the news. It was a very short call.
“Bob knows what he’s looking at,” Walden said. “I trust him and his opinion completely. He said it didn’t look good and that he needed 60 to 90 days away.”
Justify will soon head back to Kentucky and spend the rest of the year at WinStar Farm. As the breeding season approaches in February, he may find a new home at Coolmore, for an estimated sale price of $75 million.
Walden wouldn’t confirm a sale but did explain, as the person who runs a breeding farm, why it makes sense.
“I’ve been charged to make this farm [WinStar] sustainable,” Walden said. “People don’t understand what it takes to make a farm sustainable, but they should because you see people getting in and out of it all the time. It takes a lot to stay in this business.”
WinStar’s cut of the projected purchase price would be around $45 million.
Meanwhile, Baffert still dreams of what might have been.
“He’s just getting better,” Baffert said. “And he’s going to get better and better and better. I wasn’t worried about taking on older horses [in the Classic].”
After Saturday, he’ll be ready to start a career that will most assuredly be a whole lot longer than 112 days.
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