The Fleeting Career of Justify, One of Horse Racing’s True Legends

Latest Triple Crown winner Justify has left a legacy unlike many in sports.

Updated: July 31, 2018 • 8:15 PM ET

Justify will be remembered as one of horse racing's greatest.

Usain Bolt? Tom Brady? Lindsey Vonn? Michael Jordan? Roger Federer? LeBron James? Martina Navratilova? None of these sports relics can say they’ve never lost a professional competition. Legendary horse Justify can.

He’s a magnificent thoroughbred; and really, all horses that race are. But Justify is special. The Bob Baffert-trained, California-based three-year-old stunned the racing world this past spring and into the summer by defying the history books.

Justify did something that no horse has accomplished since the late 19th century, winning the Kentucky Derby after not running as a two-year-old. Even the super horse, Secretariat, ran at that age and lost races (the 3rd place finish at the Wood Memorial in 1973 comes to mind). Like Big Red though, Justify didn’t stop there.

A garland of roses gave way to Black-eyed Susans in Baltimore at the Preakness, which in turn were traded in for white carnations at the Belmont. The crowning of the 13th Triple for a sport that has weathered world wars, diminishing television audiences and claims of impropriety from the barns to the betting windows, was a welcome sight to horse racing blue bloods and casual spectators alike.

Though he only raced six times in his short career, the son of Scat Daddy (a horse often unceremoniously wagered upon during his own bid for Derby glory – finishing 18th), his career yielded a Triple Crown, $3.7 million in prize money, not to mention netting his ownership $75 million from Coolmore Stud for the breeding rights.

Certainly not an ignominious end to a career that lasted from February to early June.

This past weekend at Del Mar racetrack, after the news broke that Justify sustained a leg injury and would not race again, he made a triumphant return. Ownership and tracks do this. Just like humans that play sports and then retire, they return to thank fans, allowing them to see their heroes for what could be the last time.

Once a horse moves to the breeding shed in Kentucky, it’s much more difficult for them to travel to tracks on the West Coast. Justify won’t make an appearance at the local Marriott to sign autographs 10 years from now when he can’t pay his light bill. His retirement reminds us that horses are very much like any other athletes, though. Our time with them is ever so brief.

With Justify’s retirement, imagine what a press conference with not with Bob Baffert or jockey Mike Smith would be like, but with Justify taking questions. What would the press ask? Of course, the Triple Crown champ would have to posses Mr. Ed-style abilities (for those too young to remember him, consult YouTube, it’s great).

Questions might range from: how do you think retirement will be? To, what track did you most enjoy running on? Or, which backstretch had the best fare?

To keep this line of questioning from becoming too satirical, the point is that few sports have such integral featured athletes that never have the opportunity to discourse on what they do as horse racing. How do horses feel about their sport? We know that sometimes they aren’t in a mood to run, are tired, can get distracted by the slightest thing while racing on certain days, or just don’t have their best stuff.

Certainly, the buzz along the rail and from Baffert when he paraded at Del Mar was that Justify looked ready to race. Perhaps this type of wistful want was just that: a desire to return to something that is now lost.

But, is it?

Maybe what we should have done in the first place was enjoy Justify’s meteoritic rise to the pinnacle of his sport. The journey, after all, is the important part.

As Justify well knows, all time is fleeting.

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