Seven was the lucky number to lead Justify to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Now, No. 13 will be the number on the minds of horse racing fans everywhere, as Justify prepares to run in the 150th Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Justify has been unstoppable under the guidance of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, winning all five races he’s run since the middle of February. For Canadian horse breeder John Gunther, all he can do now is keep his fingers crossed that Justify can accomplish what so few have and that’s win the Triple Crown.
“It’s very hard to believe this. I just don’t know what to say,” Gunther said from his home in Langley, B.C. “If you look at the way Justify has been working since the Preakness, I’m really hoping and expecting him to win [the Triple Crown].”
John, along with his daughter Tanya, run Glenwood Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. Foaled a little more than three years ago to Scat Daddy & Stage Magic, Justify has gone on to gain global stardom overnight.
It started when he drew the seventh post in a 20-horse field at the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Record rainfall on race day (nearly three inches that afternoon) didn’t seem to affect his performance at Churchill Downs. After leaving the starting gate as the 5-2 favourite, Justify had little trouble getting into the lead after the first turn and brushed off all challengers to cross the finish line 2-and-a-half lengths ahead of the competition. Though Justify had never run against that many horses, let alone in that much mud, Gunther had little doubt his horse would prevail.
“The way he broke out of the gate and got the lead, nothing seemed to bother him,” Gunther recalled. “More importantly, in the walk over to the paddock, with nearly 170,000 people yelling and cheering, the crowd never bothered him at all. His mentality and the way he acts is just amazing.”
Two weeks later, at a fog-drenched Pimlico track in Baltimore, Justify again drew Gate No. 7 as a heavy 2-5 favourite to step up against seven other thoroughbreds at the Preakness Stakes. He didn’t disappoint, holding off a surging field at the finish line to remain undefeated. Gunther felt that even if Justify was only half-a-length ahead of his closest rivals, he was never going to be caught.
“It was really spectacular. He fought tooth and nail against Good Magic,” Gunther said of Justify’s toughest rival who finished second & fourth at the Derby and Preakness respectively. “It was almost like a match race between the two and he still pulled it off. It was incredible.”
Justify’s greatest test awaits this Saturday. Those who take part in the Belmont know how difficult the task is. The race is 1 ½ miles long (2.5KM for race fans in Canada). The majority of thoroughbreds are not bred or trained to run that distance, a big reason why so few have tasted Triple Crown success.
“For his size, he has such tremendous athletic ability,” Gunther said. “He has such a long stride and I don’t think the added distance is going to bother him at all. He’s been bred to go 1 ½ miles and I think with a fast track, he’ll even be more impressive than he was in the Derby and the Preakness. I’m pretty confident he can get it done.”
Justify is expected to be the below even-money morning line favourite this Saturday at Belmont. Only 12 horses have ever claimed the Triple Crown, the latest being American Pharaoh in 2015.
A big year for the Canadian breeder
Justify won’t be the only horse of Gunther’s running in the Belmont. Vino Rosso (co-owned by Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola), was bred at Gunther’s farm in 2015. He ran ninth at the Derby and took the Preakness off. In four starts this year, he’s had a first- and third-place finish, including winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York on April 8.
Gunther is also having a spring to remember overseas, as a horse he bred and owns is making headlines in the UK. Without Parole is a three-year-old colt that has won all three races it has entered in England, and is set to compete in the Royal Ascot on June 19. Gunther feels strongly his horses can make trips to the Winner’s Circle on both sides of the Atlantic this month.
“Without Parole is running in the St. James Palace Stakes, the most prestigious Grade 1 race during the whole week of Royal Ascot,” Gunther added. “Just to have him in there is a life-long dream. Just to be able to have a horse run at Royal Ascot means as much to me as running in the Kentucky Derby. It’s been quite a year so far.”