Justify’s arrival at Belmont Park on Wednesday was treated with all the fascination for detail you might expect from a space launch or even a royal wedding.
His plane left Louisville at 10:39 a.m.
It arrived at Long Island MacArthur Airport at 12:25 p.m., 34 minutes early.
The van left for the track at 1:46 p.m.
It arrived at Barn 1, at 2:10 p.m.
Justify stepped off the van at 2:13 p.m.
But, despite the mob of media and nonstop sound of cameras whirring, it was different than it was three years ago when American Pharoah arrived in the hopes of being the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. The media contingent isn’t quite as big, maybe 30% smaller. The security around the barn is more accommodating. Trainer Bob Baffert seemed more relaxed and resigned to whatever outcome awaits Justify’s attempt to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown on Saturday.
Fans waited almost four decades between Affirmed and American Pharoah. Now, it has been only three years.
“The difference between three years ago [and now] is we probably came in here trying to see if we can get it done,” Baffert said Wednesday afternoon. “But it’s a different vibe now because we know it can be done. I want to see him win it for [himself] … because he brought us here.”
Saturday will be Justify’s sixth race, the lowest of any horse to sweep the three races.
Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey and currently a commentator for NBC Sports, also sees a difference.
“I only speak for myself, but in general, interest might be a little less,” Bailey said. “I think that people believe now that you can do it. This horse has won two of the three and maybe it’s not as hard as people thought. But those that have been around and saw the close calls know it’s awful tough.”
Between the time Affirmed won in 1978 and American Pharoah won in 2015, 13 horses won the first two legs but failed in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Baffert trained three of them: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002).
“It’s even similar to the grand slam in golf,” Bailey said. “It’s so hard to do in one year. [No one has completed golf’s modern slam in one year, and five have done it in a career.] Even though horse racing isn’t as popular as it was 15 years ago, we’ve had a lot of close calls. That just raises the respect level on how hard it is to do.”
Saturday, there will be 90,000 people at Belmont Park, and the number would be higher if there wasn’t a cap on attendance. Viewership numbers will also be much higher than last year when three different horses won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Baffert believes that American Pharoah’s accomplishment had impact far beyond fan interest.
“We’ve had a lot of new people getting involved in the business, buying horses,” Baffert said. “[Sale] prices have gone up. Everyone wants quality. … You’re getting money from the Middle East, you’re getting it from Europe, China.”
Evidence of that is one of Justify’s ownership groups, the China Horse Club, had three horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Joining the China Horse Club costs a minimum of $1 million.
“I think a lot of people feel a connection with American Pharoah to this day,” Baffert said. “Strangers come up to me and say how happy American Pharoah made them feel just watching him win the Triple Crown.
“They fall in love with these animals, and Justify, he’s getting a following.”
But once horse racing creates a star, it usually tends to retire the horse because breeding is much more lucrative than running them.
After Saturday, if everything goes right, Justify might run only three more races — the Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup, although his ownership group has made no announcements.
“It’s great for the short term,” Bailey said. “If Justify wins the Triple Crown, interest will jump up substantially again. If you’re in the stock market, and it raises up 300 today, you enjoy the 300-point rise in a day. But then in a few months it may drop 300 points. So, you enjoy it while you have it.”
Baffert recognizes the need for stars and in the past few years, ownership has allowed him to run Arrogate and West Coast as 4-year-olds, although neither ran in the Triple Crown series.
“New York is going to be rocking,” Baffert said. “They are all coming out to see if he can do it. You want to see superstars. Every time we came here and got beat, I felt like I Iet the entire grandstand down. When American Pharoah won, I’ve never experienced anything like that.
“I’ve been to some pretty heavy-duty sporting events. I saw Kirk Gibson’s home run [in the 1988 World Series]. I was fortunate enough to be there and nobody could believe it. Nobody wanted to leave, it was loud for a good solid three minutes. I’ll never forget that feeling.”
Justify is the 4-5 morning-line favorite to see if he can duplicate that feeling and crescendo of noise down the stretch. If he does it, he’ll be the second Triple Crown winner since the Gibson and the Dodgers last won a World Series.