Justify, by Lenny Shulman
Talking with Lenny Shulman about his talk at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Lunchtime Lecture Series motivated me to read his latest book, Justify: 111 Days to Triple Crown Glory. It is a biography of this outstanding Thoroughbred, from his breeding, his purchase at the yearling sale, his training and development, through all his Triple Crown races, and all the people who were part of and influenced the horse’s life. As a writer for Bloodhorse for 20 years, Shulman had access to many of the people involved with the horse, especially John Gunther, breeder of Justify, his trainer Bob Baffert, and jockey Mike Smith.
Justify is one of a few horses who was successful in his limited racing career, yet had never raced as a 2-year-old. Coming into the Triple Crown races, he had little experience, but handled the situations as if he were an old pro at this racing game. Justify raced only 111 days, but winning every race he entered and his crowning achievement – the Triple Crown.
Interviewed by America’s Best Racing, Shulman spoke about a highlight of his encounters with the horse and trainer Bob Baffert.
“The magic moment occurred in March 2018 when I was interviewing Baffert at his barn at Santa Anita, and he asked me if I wanted to come see the Derby winner. This was outlandish, because Justify had run only once at that point. But Baffert brought me over to his stall, and Justify was the most imposing specimen of a Thoroughbred I’d ever seen. Right then and there I began following him very closely.”
Shulman described Justify as “one of the greatest horses we will ever see.” He said that what he learned “in writing the book is how important a horse’s intelligence is to his success. Beyond talent, he has to have the mental aspect, and everyone who touched Justify commented on what a smart horse he is.”
Shulman further noted “the two factors that will define Justify: his brilliance and what he was able to accomplish in a short amount of time. …This was a great, great racehorse. And he is forever in a very exclusive club that numbers only 13.”
Shulman’s book couches Justify’s racing career within the larger context of the Thoroughbred racing “industry.” Shulman begins by setting the scene at Belmont, where “a 1,260-pound Thoroughbred named Justify whose copper coat is defined by inlets of rippling muscles off his shoulders and hindquarters” has just been saddled and readied for the Belmont Stakes. We all know how the race turns out, but you’ll have to wait until Chapter 16 to re-live those exciting moments of the 2018 Belmont Stakes.
First, we have to learn about his breeders John and Tanya Gunther. John came from Canada to central Kentucky in 1986 to buy into a Bluegrass farm named Glennwood. It was he who saw something special in the chestnut mare Magical Illusion, and his wife Tanya had her eye on Scat Daddy. The foal born to this pair would become the Triple Crown super star. “Even as a foal, he was awesome-looking and very intelligent,” said John Gunther.
The next chapter covers the Gunthers’ heart-wrenching decision to sell Justify at the Keeneland yearling sale. Gunther put a top reserve price on the colt at $499,000, hoping that they would retain ownership of him. But when the auction “hammer fell, the Scat Daddy colt had been sold to the partnership of WinStar, China Horse Club, and SF bloodstock for half a million dollars.”
Shulman takes the reader into the world of partnerships, acquisitions, and mergers and the millions of dollars at stake in the business of buying and selling the commodity of Thoroughbred horses. You learn how some invest in the horses’ racing careers, while others invest in their breeding careers – even with the same horse. He details the history of these three businesses who bought Justify as a yearling. “As Justify left the Keeneland sale grounds for the short van ride to WinStar Farm, he couldn’t have possibly known the international scope and various tentacles of his ownership group.”
Shulman takes us through Justify’s early days, under the management of Richard Budge, with the husband-wife team of Toby and Heather Richard who break the youngsters at WinStar, which had gained a reputation as one of the premier training facilities in the U.S. for Thoroughbreds.
Justify was a growing into a powerful horse with a big, long stride. “Anytime you have a horse showing you that much talent and looking more like a 3-year-old than a 2-year-old, you give them time to strengthen and mature,” said Budge.
John Gunther said of him, “He is just a brilliant, intelligent horse. To me, he’s almost human. A very cool individual. Nothing ever bothered him.” This is a recurring theme throughout the book by multiple spokespeople: how intelligent Justify is; how takes everything in stride (pun intended) and is never bothered by anything. With all the training, races, and changes of venue, he never goes off his feed. And “he walks into a place like he owns it.”
There’s quite a bit of history of Bob Baffert in the book, too, along with the horses he’s trained and won with. Baffert’s mentor and idol – and later competitor – is D. Wayne Lukas. Baffert works primarily out of Santa Anita, California, as well as Los Alamitos. When Justify is shipped to Los Al, he gets his first experiences working out on the track. And, of course, he is extremely impressive!
You learn from Shulman not only how important strategy is during a race for getting the win, but also how trainers’ strategy in selecting particular races and making sure that these races “make,” i.e., have enough horses to run so they don’t get cancelled, is in creating a horse’s winning career.
Then Shulman takes us through each of the Triple Crown races – from the days and weeks leading to the races, to the races themselves and the exhilaration that is felt as each of Justify’s races is recalled. His most difficult, probably, was the Preakness – “fogged in and still unbeaten.” This is the race in which, “coming out of the fog, the first sight seen by viewers was two be chestnut colts, each with a broad white blaze running down their face, engaged in equine combat.” Justify was challenged by Good Magic, then Bravazo and Tenfold. “Justify hit the wire a half-length in front of Bravazo…”
From here, Shulman spends a bit of time with Mike Smith, giving a short biography of his racing career.
Tension begins to mount for Baffert in the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, who takes every precaution not to fall prey to any of his superstitions and jinx the third jewel in the crown.
Then on June 9, 2018, before 90,327 fans, “where others had wilted in the last furlong of the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, Justify never wavered, carrying on like a powerful metronome, running with precision as he repeated his stride in powerful rhythm. …He proceeded with inevitable sureness down toward the wire. …Jusitfy reach history’s doorstep in 2:28:18.” It was an exhilarating moment for Mike Smith, Baffert, and everybody across the U.S. who had watched history in the making.
The denouement to Justify’s career comes with the decision (and reasons why) not to continue to race him, but to retire him at stud. In the final chapter we visit Justify at his new stallion quarters at Ashford Stud when he is brought out for a photo shoot. In the meantime, at Glennwood Farm, “the dean of Glennwood’s equine handlers, Conrado Campos” commented that “when Justify was a baby in the field he was the best one out there; he had a lot of energy and was happy all the time. He showed that whenever he went to the track. He was so relaxed, like he knows where he’s going and knows what he’s doing.”
Shulman comments that “people like Campos and [Ricardo] Lopez (who works with Glennwood’s yearlings) form the backbone of the horse industry in North America. They are the workers who show up, often seven days a week and through any and all weather, at farms and racetracks to handle and care for these animals, who know them the best, and whose love for them makes Thoroughbred racing possible. They toil away largely in obscurity…”
Lopez said of Justify: “He loved doing whatever task was in front of him, whether it was going on the walker or being shown at the sale. He was always full of himself, but he let you do whatever you needed to do with him without bothering you.” As Lopez takes Justify’s yearling half-brother , Will Take Charge, out to the paddock, he notes the similarity in their behaviors. “Now we take the next Triple Crown winner out to the field,” he predicts.
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