By Ben Walden
There have been many storylines associated with Justify’s recent Triple Crown accomplishment. What a job John Gunther and his daughter and partner Tanya have done in recent years with a broodmare band of modest size. And what a stallion Scat Daddy has shown us to be, and what a loss his premature death represents to all of us. And there’s Bob Baffert, being Bob Baffert, compressing a maiden to Triple Crown campaign into five or six months time. And what a inspiration Mike Smith has been to all of us balding and silver-haired 50 plus-year-old folks, in the manner he has maintained his health and his fitness to compete at the highest level as an athlete, as good as the most talented of young riders. And even Justify’s dam “showed off” a little more by following him with another major stakes winner during the course of the Triple Crown. And i have to call out my precious Ghostzapper, as not just Justify’s broodmare sire, but a budding sensation as a young broodmare sire, his numbers are really good.
It was interesting to me to see Pimlico and Churchill Downs put on such a great show, with “bursting at the seams” crowds, while under such horrible weather conditions. It was as if the people there on both days were oblivious to the rain. Another incredible aspect of this Triple Crown is that I don’t remember observing a top racehorse in my lifetime that has showed such calm, having not one reason to do so, based on his void of experience. Do you ever remember Justify turning a hair? And another Triple Crown storyline for me in this 2018, was men at the forefront of the drama, living out their “larger than life” personas on national television; Kenny Troutt and Mike Smith bold as lions and gentle as lambs, declaring their genuine gratitude to the God they serve, and believe in, Jesus The Christ.
But I have another storyline to share. It is one of a little bespectacled 10 year old boy growing up on a small horse farm in Midway, Kentucky with a Racing Form in his hand. I was five years his older brother, and I don’t think I could read the Form nearly as well. I was the brother that loved the farm, and this boy had his mind and his heart set on the racetrack from my earliest memory of discussing potential vocations or lifestyle. How he grew so fond of it at such a young age, I just don’t know. Our father would take us to Ellis, Latonia, Keeneland, Churchill, and River Downs when we had a filly run. So I guess this young boy was a quick study, and didn’t take long to know what he wanted to do. And as the Lord would have it, coupled with an insatiable work ethic, this kid would grow up and become a very fine horse trainer. Brereton Jones told me one day after Elliott won the Belmont with Victory Gallop that he would be in the Racing Hall of Fame one day, that he was that good a horse trainer–and I had no doubt.
Let’s fast forward to 2018. You have probably figured out by now that I am the older brother who is so very proud of his younger brother. May I share with you why?
Behind the scenes of the previously discussed Triple Crown won by this great horse Justify, ridden by that great aforementioned rider, owned by that powerhouse owner group, trained by the man with the most famous silver hair of all time, and bred by the remarkable father/daughter Gunther team, lies that little bespectacled boy who loved the racetrack at that young age. On the more prominent national TV shots of the Triple Crown races, and their winner’s circle footage, one would not see Elliott. You could maybe find him if you were trying, on the back row of the winner’s circle. But I looked. Many times. And it was hard. I had surgery on Oaks day, and consequently was unable to attend any of the Triple Crown races. But when I did pick him up, and observe him, he most often was looking at Kenny, his boss, smiling at the good pleasure and excitement that he was enjoying. He was so happy for him.
Yess Elliott gets his share of interviews, being such a key player in such a key operation internationally, but I was so proud to observe him this spring, through this epic journey of Justify, comfortable on the back row, modest, and understated. One wouldn’t know that he and his wonderfully talented bloodstock man, David Hanley had not only picked out Justify (along with China Horse Club’s Michael Wallace and SF Bloodstock’s Tom Ryan), but also purchased arguably 2018’s second best 3-year-old in Audible.
And then there is the overall success of WinStar. Yes, they are led, at least on the ground, by my little brother, along with the obvious astute oversight of Kenny, his boss. There have been times when I have had a difficult time wrapping my mind around the scope of WinStar, much less the success of WinStar. I think most of us in the industry admire Elliott. But i just had to articulate my feelings of pride for the job he has done, and the man that little boy has become. A man who relies not on his own strength to get through each day’s challenges, but that of the same God, the same Savior, the same Christ, that Kenny Troutt and Mike Smith called out in gratitude throughout this remarkable Triple Crown journey of 2018, and that horse, not with just bottomless talent, but with the impeccably unusual mind and maturity: Justify. No doubt, my mother and father would have been proud too.