Triple Crown Fever: Why Justify Could Become the 13th Triple Crown Champion

In 2015, American Pharoah gave diehard horse racing fans and borderline enthusiasts a thrill of a lifetime with his Triple Crown run. It had been 37 years since the last Triple Crown winner. 

With Justify’s impressive run in the Kentucky Derby, should we be ready for Triple Crown fever again? I emphatically say yes! I have already bought my Belmont Stakes tickets and have airfare and hotel reservations. Barring injury or some out-of-the-blue performance, Justify is going to win the Preakness Stakes, which will set him up as a Triple Crown contender entering the Belmont Stakes. Odds makers already give him about a 40% chance of pulling off the feat.

Remember that Triple Crown Champions have come in bunches since the very first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919. 22 years passed before we saw the next run of Triple Crown winners in the 1930s with Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937). Then another run in the 1940s: Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948). Then there was a gap of 25 years before we saw the next run in the 1970s: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).

One thing that I wondered as soon as Justify won the Kentucky Derby was this: Has a Triple Crown Champion ever won the first leg of the Triple Crown on a sloppy or muddy track? The answer is yes (both Assault and Citation won the Derby over a wet track).

In fact, you probably want your Triple Crown contender to win one of the first two legs on an off track, as the chart below suggests. Nine of the 12 Triple Crown champions entered the Belmont Stakes having won at least one leg on a non-fast track. Only Secretariat and Affirmed won every leg on a dry, fast track.

TRIPLE CROWN WINNERS

Kentucky Derby Preakness Stakes Belmont Stakes
1919 Sir Barton Heavy
1930 Gallant Fox Good
1935 Omaha Good Good
1937 War Admiral Good
1941 Whirlaway Good
1943 Count Fleet Good
1946 Assault Sloppy
1948 Citation Sloppy Heavy
1973 Secretariat
1977 Seattle Slew Muddy
1978 Affirmed
2015 American Pharoah Sloppy

As far as Justify’s chances in the Preakness Stakes, I suspect his morning line odds will be somewhere between 3/5 and 4/5. However, I expect the live odds to grow shorter. Currently, US Racing has Justify’s odds of winning the Preakness Stakes at 4/9.

Why will Justify win the Preakness? Really who can beat him, wet track or dry track? Justify has four career starts — all earning 100+ Buyer Speed Figures. Justify’s muddy/sloppy Beyer Speed Figure average is 102. His fast track BSF average is 105.5.

Below are the only 3-year-olds that recorded a 100+ Beyer Speed Figures in races longer than one mile. The Preakness Stakes is 1 3/16 miles.

  • Justify: 107 – Santa Anita Derby – 9 furlongs.
  • Mendelssohn: 106 – UAE Derby – 1900 Meters.
  • Justify: 103 – Kentucky Derby – 10 furlongs.
  • Bolt d’Oro: 102 – Santa Anita Derby – 9 furlongs.
  • McKinzie: 101 – San Felipe Stakes – 8 1/2 furlongs.
  • Bolt d’Oro: 101 – San Felipe Stakes – 8 1/2 furlongs.

From the list above, Justify’s only real competition on a fast track appears to be Bolt d’Oro who looks to be headed to the Met Mile (Metropolitan Handicap) on Belmont Stakes day instead of the Preakness. McKinzie won’t compete in the Triple Crown series due to bruised hind leg. Judging from the comments of Mendelssohn’s trainer Aidan O’Brien, it appears Mendelssohn will return to turf racing in Europe.

Hence, Justify’s only real Preakness Stakes competition may come from the 2-Year-Old Male Champion Good Magic. But Justify beat him by 2 1/2 lengths in the sloppy Kentucky Derby and Good Magic never gained ground on Justify down the stretch.

This might be a race if muddy or sloppy conditions prevail. However, on a fast track, nobody is catching Justify in the Preakness.

Michael Cox
Michael is a pharmacist by profession, author of “Masten Gregory: Totally Fearless” as well as a horse racing blog that can be found at: www.thederbyhandicapper.com. He attributes his love for horse racing to two things: his grandfather who used to listen to horse races on the radio broadcasted from the now defunct Ak-Sar-Ben race track in Omaha, Nebraska and a Sports Illustrated subscription in the 1970s.
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