By Joe Nevills
The careers of Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) and Justify (Scat Daddy) will be inexorably linked due to their proximity in history and their shared trainer. Likewise, the celebrations for each respective horse at Churchill Downs following their Classic sweeps reflected the public personas each have established.
American Pharoah’s celebration was a release, allowing fans who had waited nearly four decades to heap praise on a horse that soaked in every camera lense pointed his way. Justify’s parade on Saturday evening was, like the horse, more reserved and focused. The pressure was off.
Fans packed three-to-four-deep around the Churchill Downs paddock between the second and third races under the beating sun of a 95-degree day in Louisville, Kentucky. The group showed enthusiasm in anticipation for Justify’s arrival, but it was hard to find revelers who threw themselves into the event enough to display their enthusiasm visually.
Just one sign was visible around the walking ring, belonging to Shaun Basch, who drove seven hours from Muskegon, Michigan to attend the event. She did the same for American Pharoah three years earlier.
“The only artistic skills I have are drawing and painting horses, so I come here bearing a sign every time,” Basch, 29, said. “Being able to be here and see this animal that’s done so much for the industry already just by winning the Triple Crown and breaking Apollo’s curse, it’s just amazing. I didn’t think we’d have one Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, let alone two, so I’m a happy girl.”
Though they lacked the elaborate aqua and yellow garb and Egyptian-themed costumes of American Pharoah, striking up a conversation with one Justify fan revealed many more within earshot, happy to explain what the horse and his accomplishments meant to them. The appreciation was still there among the public, even if they didn’t wear it on their sleeves.
It would be too much of a dive into hyperbole to say Justify entered the paddock with the air of a newly-coronated king looking over his subjects, but it was hard to ignore the fact that the colt shared the walking ring with a field of 3-year-old maidens, all of which will likely spend the rest of the year chasing in vain as Justify occupies the top spot in their division.
Still, the swagger was apparent in the hulking chestnut colt as he settled calmly in the number 14 stall and waited for the maidens to clear the way.
“He’s like Muhammad Ali, man,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “He’s ready to rumble again. I’ve never seen a horse that is just so tough, and he never lost any weight. He came in there like he was going to run. He was waiting for me to put the saddle on.”
Once he had the walking ring to himself, groom Eduardo “Lalo” Luna took the Classic winner around the ring. The crowd kept their whoops and applause at a respectful level during his first laps, and politely thanked Luna with each stop for a photo opportunity.
The horse occasionally looked out at the crowd with a curious eye when he paused, but Baffert’s description of a horse that looked ready to race was apt. His focus was often forward, or on the man at the other end of the shank, holding his composure professionally.
The crowd picked up its cheers when Baffert took over the lead from Luna. It’s been a whirlwind week for the trainer, who said the feeling of reaching the sport’s highest North American peak twice had not yet fully sunk in. Part of the reason was travel, and part of it was staying focused on business.
“I’ve been flying,” the trainer said. “It’s going to be really nice to finally get home and be able to just sit back, relax. This is where we start getting our 2-year-olds in for next year, and I’m thinking, ‘Alright, who’s going to step up?'”
Noticeably absent from the walking ring parade was jockey Mike Smith, though he had the acceptable excuse of having a mount in the third race. The jockey changed quickly into WinStar Farm’s silks to meet the horse and connections in the winner’s circle.
“It feels so good, I just want to do it all over again,” Smith said about his Triple Crown triumph. “It’s like having a wonderful meal, you just want seconds.”
For all the colt has accomplished over the past 118 days, the regular winner’s enclosure at Churchill was one place his hooves had yet to tread until Saturday evening. The crush of humanity that surrounded the area made Justify a bit antsy, but he stood well for a handful of photos before walking one more time in front of the grandstand as the applause followed him back to the barn.
Starlight Racing owns a 15% stake in Justify, but their members made up the vast majority of the population in the winner’s circle photo. “That makes it all cool,” said Starlight managing partner Jack Wolf. “We originally set this thing up to spread the risk, but we never figured that we’d have the opportunity of having these people participate in a horse of this stature. It is very rewarding.”
When the horse was sent back to the barn, the focus turned to the human element, awarding the GI Kentucky Derby trophies to the winning connections, while the new Triple Crown trophy cast a long shadow next to them.
The big, gold version of the Derby trophy went to Kenny Troutt, owner of WinStar Farm and the majority owner of Justify. The operation has seen plenty of success at Churchill Downs over the years, taking races as lofty as the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic over the oval, but WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden recognized the historic value of the moment he was in.
“It’s just unbelievable to see all the fans come out,” Walden said. “The thing about a horse that wins the Triple Crown, it’s not our horse anymore, it’s America’s horse. It’s great that Bob is good enough to share him with the public here.”