The stakes were highest for one chestnut colt at the Belmont Stakes this year.
But Justify beat the odds and joined an elite — and extraordinarily small — class of horses to win the Triple Crown at the 150th Belmont Stakes on Saturday. The thoroughbred faced his toughest challenge yet at the mile-and-a-half race, where he made good on his 2018 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins.
But winning the Belmont Stakes is even harder than it looks — and the New York track presented the most challenging race of the three, Nick Zito, an experienced trainer with Derby, Preakness and Belmont wins under his belt, told TIME before Saturday’s big win for Justify.
“It’s called the Triple Crown for a reason,” Zito said. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do in sports.”
After all, only 12 horses have won it in close to 150 years of these races. If Justify had failed to clinch the win Saturday, he would have become the 24th thoroughbred to win the Derby and the Preakness — but not the Triple Crown.
His odds at the Belmont were 4-5, but that vastly overstated his historical chances of victory.
The longest race of the three American Classics bookends the series and reflects just how hard it is to win the the coveted title. Justify had to win three championships over the span of just more than a month, with races in varying distances in different states. Justify’s first win of the series came at the one-and-a-quarter-mile Kentucky Derby track on May 5, and his second victory came two weeks later in Baltimore at the one-and-three-sixteenths-mile Preakness Stakes track.
However, Belmont is a different beast entirely, said Zito.
“Belmont is the most grueling of the Triple Crown races. It’s the toughest for sure.” Zito knows that first hand. Despite two wins in 2004 and 2008 at Belmont Park, Zito’s horses have come in second there seven different times.
The odds may have been stacked even higher against Justify. He got a bruised knee at the Kentucky Derby and won on back-to-back on wet tracks in Kentucky and Maryland. The weather was clear and dry at Belmont on Friday.
The additional length at Belmont often tires out these horses, Zito said. Even the sand on the track at Belmont feels tougher — it’s deeper, softer and can be tough to trudge through. And Triple Crown-vying horses often have to compete with thoroughbreds who didn’t appear in Kentucky or Baltimore, now stepping into the arena with fresher and more energetic legs.
On top of all of these conditions, for horses to even have a shot at the Triple Crown, they must have an excellent pedigree, Zito said. That means these winning race horses likely come from lineages that exhibited both speed and stamina, as well as intelligence and good judgement. Secretariat, the legendary thoroughbred who won the 1973 Triple Crown, is the pinnacle of these sets of qualities, Zito said. While Justify has a strong pedigree of his own, “you can’t say he’s Secretariat-safe,” Zito said.
There are also a range of ways a race could go all wrong and destroy a shut at the title. A horse can simply have a slow day, or he could have a poor start when the starting gates break away.
But Zito was always hoping the stars would align correctly for Justify. And while his victory was not quite as dominant as Secretariat’s historic 1973 finish, Zito hopes Justify can bring some more magic to horse racing.
“You need stars in racing like everything else,” Zito said. “We’re always looking for stars. And that’s what (Justify) looks like.”