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"15 Stage Magic: The Story of Justify"

On March 28, 2015, history was made in Versailles, Kentucky. A 128 pound, chestnut colt was birthed at Glennwood Farm. John D. Gunther had the breeding of his mare Stage Magic to Scat Daddy planned years ahead of time and, now, newborn “15 Stage Magic” stood in his stall.

The colt’s dam, Stage Magic, was a stakes placed daughter of the talented Ghostzapper. His sire, Scat Daddy, had won multiple graded stakes races before suffering a career ending injury in the Kentucky Derby. With such an outstanding pedigree, it was almost certain that “15 Stage Magic” would be a successful racehorse.

Photo by CC Photography

The chestnut colt grew big and strong at Glennwood Farm. He was playful, fast, and showy. In 2016, 15 Stage Magic entered the sale ring at Keeneland's September Yearling Sale. Here he was purchased for $500,000 by Winstar Farm and China Horse Club and, after spending some time being tutored by Rodolphe Brisset, the colt was sent to trainer Bob Baffert. As time wore on, “15 Stage Magic” continued to blossom into the horse we all know him as today - Justify.

Justify wasn’t known by the general public until he was three-years old when he made his debut in a Maiden Special Weight at Santa Anita Park in February of 2018. He broke from gate three and moved to the front of the pack to fight between horses for the lead. As the horses approached the start of the far turn, Justify took the lead and easily put away the field for an incredible seven length win.

Less than a month later, Justify was back in the gates at Santa Anita. From post eight, Justify broke a step slow. He took the first turn three wide while Calaxman set the pace. As the pack moved onto the backstretch, Justify moved up to second and fired as they neared the far turn. With absolute ease, Justify moved six lengths away from his competitors to snatch his second win in two starts.

By now, the world of racing had developed quite the interest in Justify. He was big, fast, and winning races like he was running them alone. His entry in the G1 Santa Anita Derby would give him the chance to prove his worthiness for a Kentucky Derby run - and that he did. Justify was heavily favored at 4-5 when he broke extremely well from post six. He swiftly took the lead, separating himself from the other horses by three lengths as they moved down the backstretch. This time around, however, Justify was challenged by Bolt d’Oro at the top of the stretch. Justify’s gleaming undefeated record looked like it could be tarnished, but only for a moment. With some pushing from jockey Mike Smith, Justify was able to put Bolt d’Oro away and crossed the wire in front.

Justify entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated. Talks of “The Apollo Curse” reminded racing fans that a horse that didn’t race as a two-year old hasn’t won the first leg of the Triple Crown since Apollo did it in 1882. However, Justify’s devoted fans and his connections kept their hopes high. Bettors disregarded the curse as well, landing Justify at odds of 5/2.

In post seven under Churchill Downs' famous twinspires stood Justify. The big chestnut colt was already soaked to the bone from heavy, Lexington rains. When the last horse was loaded and the gates swung open, Justify bounded down the sloppy track towards the front of the pack. Three wide and just a neck off of pacesetting Promises Fulfilled, Justify ran at blazing numbers. Worried onlookers worried that they were moving too fast, but Justify seemed unphased by the fast pace. As they took the far turn, Justify pushed himself into first and moved closer to the rail. Like in his three races before, Justify never gave up the lead once he had gained it. He barrelled through the mud, breaking Apollo’s Curse as he crossed the wire in first.

While racing fans buzzed about the possibilities of another Triple Crown winner, Justify suffered a bruised foot. This caused the colt to miss some post-race training. Now, he was looked at as vulnerable and many people believed that this vulnerability could cause him to be beaten by Good Magic, the runner up in the Derby.

Once again, Justify stood in gate seven, soaked to the bone from the rains at Pimlico. He broke well and took the lead, however Good Magic was quick to challenge him. The two dueled around the first turn and down the backstretch. The two took the far turn together and, nose to nose, they entered the stretch. Mike Smith gave Justify steady left hand encouragement and, with that, Justify moved away from Good Magic. Strong runs by Bravazo and Tenfold threatened Justify, but he was able to hold onto his lead as he crossed the wire in the Preakness Stakes.

Now, talks of the Triple Crown dominated the racing world. Could there be another winner just three years after American Pharoah immortalized himself as the first to win it in thirty seven years? Was a horse who had made his debut only 112 days before even capable of accomplishing something so rare? Justify answered both of those questions at Belmont Park in June.

Justify broke from gate one and immediately took the lead. The crowd looked on anxiously as Justify set a fast pace, slowing it down slightly as he moved onto the backstretch (but still running quicker than American Pharoah had a few years before). He led by a length all throughout the backstretch and increased that lead to two lengths as he rounded the far turn. At the top of the stretch, Justify led by one length. The crowd roared as they watched Justify. He matched their enthusiasm - bounding down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes and immortalizing himself as he crossed the wire in front.

Only two of all thirteen Triple Crown winners were undefeated: Seattle Slew in 1977 and now Justify in 2018. Furthermore, Justify became the only horse to win the Triple Crown without racing as a two-year old. With both of these things in mind, excitement for the rest of Justify’s career could not be contained. Hopes of him running in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the Grand Slam title were high.

Unfortunately, these hopes quickly turned to disappointment. Justify developed a filling in his ankle and it took him far too long to recover to enter prep races before the Breeders' Cup World Championships in November. He was retired, joining Count Fleet as the only two Triple Crown winners to not race again after the Belmont Stakes. Justify was paraded for fans at Del Mar one last time before he was shipped back home to WinStar Farm. He remained there until his sale to Coolmore America was finalized.

Just three years after taking his first breath, “15 Stage Magic” relaxes peacefully in a stall in the same place in which it all began - Versailles, Kentucky. In 2019, those who can afford to pay $150,000 to have their mare bred to him will do so. As the years go by and horses with the sire “Justify” listed in their pedigree begin to make their way to the track, we will look back on his career and remember the way we felt when we watched him win the Triple Crown.

Many people believe that Justify winning the Triple Crown was just not as exciting or as special as watching that short-tailed bay win it for the first time in thirty-seven years. And many believe that the horse should still be on the racetrack, that the economics of racing causing talented horses to be retired at such a young age is sad. There will always be differing opinions on horses and their accomplishments but one thing rules over all opinions: in just 112 days, Justify was able to permanently etch his name into horse racing history.


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