NEW YORK – Justify defied all the odds on his way to achieving Triple Crown immortality.
The late bloomer won the Belmont Stakes by a length on Saturday, giving the sport its 13th Triple Crown champion. American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in 2015, and now just four years later, racing is celebrating another sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Justify began his racing career on Feb. 18, a scant 77 days before the Derby. He won his first three races by a combined 19 lengths, making trainer Bob Baffert a believer.
The big chestnut colt burst onto the national scene with a 2-length victory on a sloppy track in the Derby. Two weeks later, he survived a challenge in the fog-shrouded Preakness, winning by a half-length.
"The raw talent is there," Baffert said. "He just came on there and broke every curse there was. It was meant to be."
On a cloudy 80-degree day at Belmont Park, Justify proved a cool customer.
He didn't flinch when greeted by 90,327 roaring fans as he walked onto the track. He stood so quietly in the starting gate that jockey Mike Smith, a former champion at Canterbury Downs, wondered if he'd respond when it sprang open.
Did he ever.
Justify led all the way in achieving one of the sports world's toughest feats 45 years to the day that Secretariat won the Belmont by a record 31 lengths. Baffert called Justify one of the all-time greats.
"I think he's the greatest of all time," Smith said. "I just won the Triple Crown, man. He's my champion."
Justify accomplished a lot in a very short time after being held out as a 2-year-old because of a pulled muscle.
At 6-0, he is only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, joining Seattle Slew in 1977; Slew also was a wire-to-wire Belmont winner. Justify is the only horse to beat nine rivals in the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.
Justify's human handlers also made history. Baffert became the second trainer to win the Triple Crown twice, having overseen American Pharoah. James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons guided Gallant Fox in 1930 and Omaha in 1935.
"It never gets old," Baffert said. "American Pharoah, he'll always be my first love."
At 52, Smith became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. He celebrated by grabbing white carnations from the winner's blanket and tossing them in the air.
Justify's victory gives racing its second Triple Crown winner of the decade. The last time there were two Triple Crown champions in the same decade was the 1970s, which produced Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
Purchased for $500,000, Justify earned $800,000 for his Belmont win, giving him $3,798,000 in his career.
The colt with the blaze running the length of his face showed no signs that the rigors of running a compressed schedule had gotten to him.
On a fast, dry track, Justify was just as good in his third race in five weeks at his third different track. Sent off as the 4-5 favorite, Justify ran 1½ miles — the longest race of the series — in 2:28.18 and paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80.
"You can't doubt him now, there's no way," said Bill Mott, trainer of third-place Hofburg. "He did it right up on the pace, and everybody had an opportunity to take their shot. They didn't do it. They let it go too easy."
There were mild bids turning for home. Vino Rosso made the most serious move to get within a length but never threatened. Justify pulled away down the 1,097-yard stretch with only 24-1 shot Gronkowski picking off a half-dozen rivals in taking up the chase.