Justify's retirement leads to reflection on a short career

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Benoit_Justify
Ridden by Mike Smith, Justify won the Triple Crown last month. He was retired from racing Wednesday after a brief, 6-for-6 career. (Benoit photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park)

Las Vegas

112 days.

That is it.

112 days.

That is how long Justify’s racing career lasted. Time enough to break a maiden, raise eyebrows in an allowance race made just for him, qualify for the Kentucky Derby, win the Kentucky Derby, win the Preakness, win the Belmont Stakes and become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner.

He also teased us with thoughts of a summertime valedictory at the Haskell and Travers and conjured dreams of a final, victorious bow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Instead, Justify was a comet, barely giving us time to make much money on him. He was quietly retired Wednesday with the flourish of a statements from his connections.

“Justify had some filling in his ankle, and he is just not responding quick enough for a fall campaign,” trainer Bob Baffert said in a statement posted by WinStar Farm. “We all wanted to see Justify run again, but ultimately it is my responsibility to make sure he is perfect. Without 60-90 days I can’t be definite.”

Unless you had him at something close to 300-1 in the Kentucky Derby future book at the Wynn Las Vegas before he ran his first race, you had a hard time finding value with this guy outside of horizontal and vertical bets around him. And despite him.

112 days.

In that short time Justify had all of six races – never as a 2-year-old, and never to be as an older horse. He was a favorite every time – odds-on for all but the Kentucky Derby where he was 5-2. If you let your first $2 win bet on him Feb. 18 ride through all six of his victories, you wound up with – wait for it – $58.77. That wouldn’t even cover the cost of a general-admission ticket to the Derby.

The numbers worked out much better for WinStar, China Horse Club, Heads of Plains Racing and Starlight Racing, the partners who spent $500,000 to buy Justify when he was just a big, growing yearling sired by Scat Daddy.

In those 112 days Justify earned $3,798,000. He raced a grand total of 11 minutes, 15.62 seconds, which means you could string his races together, show them at halftime of an NFL game and still have time for a sideline reporter to serve up one inane, softball question for a coach – two if it’s Bill Belichick. Punching a time clock, Justify made money at the rate of $20 million an hour. It’s just that there are not enough racing hours to maintain that gravy train.

Now he goes to stud on a deal with Coolmore America – or so we hear. It is said to be worth $75 million to $85 million, if we are to believe either a cable TV self-promoter or a newspaper with an open disdain for horse racing. Presuming that to be at least a half-truth, how is purse money supposed to measure up? If Justify had stuck around for the Breeders’ Cup and even next year’s Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, winning all three would add a mere $17.5 million.

Skeptics would argue then that Justify was truly retired June 9, the day he won the Triple Crown. It was just a matter of putting on appearances the way a husband and wife do when they want to avoid questions about their impending divorce.

Who knows what piece of the breeding action that Baffert and jockey Mike Smith are getting – if any? They are not hurting either way. But with Justify’s retirement, their 10 percent shares of future purse money mean that they lost the opportunity for perhaps another couple million extra racing dollars apiece.

“Like everyone else, I am disappointed he won’t run again,” Smith said in that same WinStar statement Wednesday. “But I am thankful he came into my life.”

It is not just the lost opportunity for purse shares and cold exactas that make this story feel so unrequited. Contrast Justify’s quiet exit with that of American Pharoah. Three years ago this weekend Pharoah was coming back from the first Triple Crown in 37 years to race in the Haskell Invitational. And he won it.

Yes, it was a risk pressing Pharoah and risking his stud career – also with Coolmore. His reputation was certainly on the line after he lost the Travers and before he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was all a gamble back in 2015, and it was led by Ahmed Zayat, an owner who has not been shy about making big bets on his and others’ horses. Pharoah was widely regarded as a chance for Zayat to make up for earlier losses, so he had incentive.

Moreover, Zayat was a throwback to a time when horse owners were – well – people. With apologies to Elliott Walden and his partners, WinStar, et al., offer the facelessness of Corporate Earth – the bland investor that minimizes the risk in order to maximize the return.

That is anathema to a sport that was built on gambling. But let’s get real. This is racing in the 21st century.

All this probably means that we have not seen the last of these comets like Justify that streak across the sky for a brief time. Before we get to know them – and bet much on them – they are gone.

Just look at what is happening now with the big 4-year-old Catalina Cruiser. After being pressed into last weekend’s San Diego Handicap, he is 3-for-3 for Hronis Racing. If trainer John Sadler sends him to victories in the Pacific Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, does anyone really believe we will see him racing next year?

Which brings us back to those 112 days.

Now we are left to find context with Justify. Bad as I am at math, I was still able to figure out that Justify’s career lasted less time than the 161 days it took the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that sports gambling should be legal. It took about 112 days to get the power turned back on for most residents in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. A Google search revealed that it took about 112 days to fight the Spanish-American War.

Those of us who empower ourselves to make sense of all this are bound to face similar struggles, especially as this sport continues its irreversible tilt to being a game that races horses to breed rather than breeding them to race.

The last we may see of Justify before he becomes a name on the sire line comes Saturday, when he will be paraded at Del Mar.

112 days.

If nothing else, we had those to share. Even if they did not make us much money, they left us with stories to tell, a lifetime of memories and maybe a lesson or two about the future of racing.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and from major races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Maggie Ball, host and handicapper from XBTV, and Phil D’Amato, two-time reigning champion  owner at Del Mar, will be this week’s guests.

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