ELMONT, N.Y. — Four months ago, only a select few people knew about Justify. The colt was not on any Kentucky Derby lists. Then, he ran and ran and ran and ran and ran and ran all the way to the Triple Crown.
Exactly 111 days from his first start on Feb. 18, Justify, a massive colt with early speed that chills competition, a perfect stride that is repeatable, and an obvious will to finish first, bolted to a clear lead at the start of Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Once Justify was out there alone with jockey Mike Smith, there was never any chance any of the other nine horses was going to catch him.
"We're going to find out how much hostility there is out there," Justify's trainer, Bob Baffert, had said in the final moments before Justify headed for the tunnel from the Belmont Park backstretch to the paddock. "Smarty Jones, he had a lot of hostility."
Baffert and Smarty's trainer, John Servis, are good friends, and Servis recently reminded him of the two-pronged attack Smarty took when he was going for the 2004 Triple Crown.
There may have been some jockeys or trainers with hostility on their minds, but Justify is so fast out of the gate that it is irrelevant. And it did not hurt that Justify's stablemate, Restoring Hope, acted as horse racing's version of a moving screen on the first turn.
"He's just faster than these horses," Smith said succinctly and accurately.
So six races, six wins. Second unbeaten Triple Crown winner, just like the great Seattle Slew in 1977. Second Triple Crown for Baffert. First for Smith. Second in four years after American Pharoah in 2015.
The earth may not have shaken as in 2015, when 37 years of emotion poured out as Pharoah won. Still, when it was obvious with 200 yards to go no horse was going to catch Justify, it was plenty loud enough at America's largest racetrack, where they ran its signature race for the 150th time.
It was not Secretariat by 31 lengths. It was not Affirmed and Alydar inseparable down the stretch 40 years ago. But it was unprecedented. Horses do not do what Justify just did. Only a great horse could have done it.
"Everybody keeps waiting for him to get beat," Baffert had said before the race.
They are still waiting.
When Baffert left the paddock to head for the grandstand, he relayed to Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm, one of Justify's owners, what he had told Smith.
"The gas tank's full, just don't use it all at once," Baffert said.
Smith, the coolest man at Belmont Park, who did not even celebrate when the race and the Triple Crown were won, rationed it perfectly.
The fractions were moderate, the final time for the mile-and-a-half, 2:28.18. The most impressive part was the final quarter-mile in 25.28 seconds.
"The great ones, they just find another gear," Baffert said.
The next most impressive performance to Justify's was second-place Gronkowski's run from last after missing the break to within 1 3/4 lengths of a Triple Crown winner. That from a horse in his first American race, first race on dirt and burdened by a name of a football player from the 2018 Super Bowl runners-up
But there was no catching Justify, the 13th Triple Crown winner, Baffert's record 15th Triple Crown race win. On the last two Belmont Stakes Days, Baffert has entered horses in seven stakes and won them all, six with Smith riding. Smith and Baffert are as close to a sure thing as there is in a sport with no sure things.
"Bob has helped me achieve so many of my dreams," Smith said. "Then, he puts an old man on [Justify]."
And Smith, 52, gets his Triple Crown. Baffert, 65, gets another.
"To do what he did in such a short time is amazing," Smith said of Justify. "I was confident he was going to run through the wire."
Justify always runs through the wire.