By Josh Caudill
Having already won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and just days from the 150th Belmont Stakes, Justify looks to finish his quest to become the 13th Triple Crown winner and the first since American Pharoah did it in 2015.
Between Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978 and American Pharoah’s Triple Crown in 2015, there were 13 different horses who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before falling short at “The Test of the Champion.”
He’s still the favorite at 4-5 odds even with drawing the far inside No. 1 post for Saturday’s race. That’s how highly everyone is on the undefeated horse. After breaking the 136-year old ‘Apollo Curse,’ there’s very little reason to doubt Justify’s chances.
As much as the excitement has intensified around the world, it pales in comparison to the buzz surrounding Justify’s majority owner, WinStar Farm.
Justify came to WinStar as a yearling and broke there. So many WinStar employees have ridden him, worked with him and watched his rapid rise to stardom with a sense of enormous pride. No matter who you speak with, it’s a safe assumption that everyone has a Justify story.
“We’re all still on cloud nine. Just to win the Kentucky Derby alone was a huge experience for us,” said Bethany Wurl, the marketing coordinator of WinStar Farm. “The fact that we may make history with this horse, it’s just icing on the cake.”
Raised in Indiana, Wurl’s love of horses and the tradition of watching the Kentucky Derby every year brought her to the Bluegrass. Having remembered the iconic WinStar silks from childhood, she knew she wanted to work there and she has since 2012.
She remembers the excitement around the farm when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown. Pioneer of the Nile, the sire to American Pharoah, stands at WinStar so they felt they were a part of the ride and the excitement lasted for weeks.
But this is different.
“There’s a special excitement to it that unless you’re in those shoes, you never get a chance to fill those kinds of nerves,” said Sean Tugel, the director of bloodstock services and assistant racing manager at WinStar Farm. “I’m sure come Saturday and it comes five minutes until post, we’re going to be really nervous but good nerves. We all aspire to be a part of a Triple Crown and have a chance to win a Triple Crown, I can’t think of anything more exciting than having this opportunity.”
What Tugel and others wouldn’t hesitate to tell you is how surprising Justify’s success has been. Tugel was around Justify as a two-year-old. He thought he was a good-looking horse, an expensive horse and he moved really well and there were a couple of times he breezed on the farm where they were in awe.
But did they think they had a Triple Crown winner in Justify? Tugel says, “Nobody was thinking that.”
“He was always an easy choice to train, pretty straightforward but the problem that we had was managing his speed,” said Destin Heath, an assistant trainer at WinStar. “You had to make sure he didn’t go too fast and didn’t do too much because with such a naturally-talented animal it’s very easy to do that.”
Heath, an Oklahoma native who got his break in the industry working for D. Wayne Lukas at 16 years old, says the trainers always have their picks the first week or two they’re on the farm. His two picks of last year’s crop were Justify and Audible, both WinStar horses who raced in the Derby.
“Usually, that’s a long shot. It’s like trying to pick a Derby winner two years in advance and Justify was my pick of that crop. I liked him from day one,” Heath said. “A lot of the other people were picking the ‘million dollar this’ the ‘million dollar that’ the fancy TapIts and what not, and I like the rangy, powerful Scat Daddy [Justify’s sire].”
In early February before he ever ran, he had fallen off the radar for most but WinStar had always thought highly of him. There were high expectations and when they saw Justify get up the hill in four strides on the farm’s track with ease, they knew they had a racehorse.
When Justify broke his maiden at the Santa Anita Derby, Tugel knew he was special. Jockey Mike Smith was comparing him to Easy Goer but most thought it was probably too close to the Kentucky Derby. It didn’t seem realistic but then everything has gone perfectly.
“Man, he’s nice but it’s probably too close to the Derby. It didn’t seem realistic but then everything has gone so perfectly for the horse,” Tugel said. “I don’t know what it was about him but I told many people, I wasn’t that nervous for Derby. For whatever reason, I don’t know if it’s because we had three [Justify, Audible, Noble Indy] but the Derby was like a calming experience.”
At Churchill Downs, the spotlight was on Justify, his jockey and legendary trainer Bob Baffert. Justify was the favorite but some experts thought racing in the Derby as his fourth race and the muddy conditions might be too much.
Tugel wasn’t concerned. He saw Mendelssohn acting up and other horses showing signs of being affected by the pressure of over 150,000 people screaming. Justify, on the other hand, was the fastest and the strongest and was acting like it was a “regular Saturday afternoon,” according to Tugel.
“He knows he’s the man. Any time something walked by that he didn’t like, he definitely let them know he didn’t like them,” Heath said. He’s reasonable and he was a great horse to ride for the guys and a great horse to be around but he knew he was the man.
“A lot of really good horses have that confidence and that persona where they are like, ‘I am the man. I’m the best there is and you’re not beating me,’” Tugel said. “He does have that. He seems like a kind horse but he’s a super intelligent horse.”
Tugel and Wurl brought Justify’s breeders, John and Tanya Gunther, to Churchill with them. They thought, “If Justify breaks well, he’s probably going to win.” That’s indeed what happened. Wurl and Tanya held each other while the rain poured down and waited and watched as the field made the final turn. They screamed as Justify pulled ahead. They didn’t even see him finish but they knew he won. They rushed to the winner’s circle.
“To run down the stairs of Churchill Downs and to try and get into the Winner’s Circle where there have only been 144 pictures snapped, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Tugel.
“It was all like a dream, the way the lights at the track were beaming and the rain made it
all look dreamy,” Wurl said. “It didn’t even seem real.”
Heath was at his house, sitting in his wife’s spot on the couch. He had worn his Justify hat all week before the Derby and he has worn it every day since. He watched the race in total silence. His wife grabbed his arm down the stretch and said, “Are you watching this?”
“I just sat there in silence, in absolute silence until he hit the finish line and then I’m pretty sure everyone in Woodford County heard me,” Heath said.
A few weeks later during the Preakness, Justify fought off a late surge by Bravazo and Tenfold in the mud and the fog to win the race. But when the video camera lost him in the fog when he was making a move to put away Good Magic and the field, Tugel described it as “the most nerve-racking 15 seconds of my life.”
“The things that Bob [Baffert] has done in just 91 days or whatever it is, from his first race to the Preakness, three Grade 1 wins, a Derby, a Preakness, that is something I can probably say, we’ll never see that again in our lifetime,” Heath said.
When it comes to racing, there is some luck involved. Superstitions are understandable in the sports world. Heath wore the same shirt he did for the Derby and Preakness and cooked tacos el pastor for Derby, cooked ceviche for Preakness and will cook a Hispanic dish for Belmont.
Heath says, “I tell people I’m not superstitious but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
For Tugel, there’s one ritual he’s sticking to before the Belmont: delivering the silks to the barn. He took the silks to the barn for Derby and Preakness and he’s making sure that aspect doesn’t change.
Once a great horse emerges, it’s natural for racing fans to want to compare them to past greats and debate whether they’re in the same mold of a Man o’ War or a Secretariat or a Citation.
“Some of the greatest horses have been called ‘Big Red.’ Man o’War was called ‘Big Red.’ You got Secretariat called ‘Big Red.’ We’ve got a big ole Chestnut with white on him too. I just haven’t been able to bring myself to want to even compare him to those horses,” Tugel said. “You can’t compare great horses to other great horses.”
When pressed for a comparison, Tugel said if he had to pick a horse that Justify was most similar to, it would be Seattle Slew. It’s a fitting comparison. Seattle Slew went nine for nine and is the only Triple Crown winner to finish the series undefeated.
With a win on Saturday, Justify would join him in the exclusive club.
In the realm of horse racing history, WinStar Farm is very young. The farm has only been here since the early 2000s and before Justify; their only Derby winner was Super Saver in 2010. Winning a Triple Crown would be a game-changer for Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm. That would mean two Triple Crown winners were just six miles apart in Versailles.
You can never expect a Triple Crown. It has only occurred 12 times in history. However, when you’re this close to capturing a historical moment, you cannot help but wonder what having the pixy dust sprinkled on Justify would mean for him, for his owners and for everyone who was there from the beginning.
“It would cement WinStar as being in the breath as the Claibornes, the Calumets, those farms that people always talk about when they’re talking about horse racing,” Tugel said. “What Justify could do is really give us a mark in the history books going forward, that’s for sure.”
“The fact that we could possibly stand three Derby winners here in Kentucky, who else in the history of racing could ever say that they have had three active Kentucky Derby winners standing at stud?” Heather said. “To have that and have two Triple Crown winners standing at stud somewhere in Kentucky, it really shows how prominent Central Kentucky racing is.
“It’d be a summary of everything everyone here has worked for. We put our heart and soul into everything we do whether it’s mating the mares, raising the babies, breaking the horses, we try to do everything we can to produce a superior athlete. Having a Triple Crown winner just means that it worked,” said Wurl.
“He’s going to be immortal if he wins.”
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