Justify captures 13th Triple Crown at Belmont

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Justify captures 13th Triple Crown at Belmont
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran poses with the Triple Crown Trophy, awarded to Justify. (Courtesy of Nassau government)

For much of the day Saturday, it felt as if the attention of the crowd at Belmont Park was anywhere but the racetrack. Thousands spent most of the sunny afternoon on the grass behind the grandstand, lying among the picnic baskets and beer cans. When the attendees began to take their seats after 6 p.m., they were greeted not by races but by 90s-band Third Eye Blind.

But at 6:46 p.m., all eyes were on the racetrack. Attendees without seats pulled benches onto the concourse so they could see over the crowd. When the horses finally made their way into the starting gate, a roar went up from the 90,000 in attendance.

The screams from the crowd continued for another three minutes, growing louder every second as Justify, a chestnut colt from Kentucky, won the Belmont Stakes and became the 13th Triple Crown winner.

“This horse ran a tremendous race,” jockey Mike Smith told The New York Times after the race. “He’s so gifted; he was sent from heaven. I can’t even begin to describe my emotions right now.”

His joy was matched by many in attendance. Thousands had placed bets on Justify to follow in the footsteps of American Pharoah, who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015. Hundreds eschewed fancy hats for yellow foam crowns.

This year marked the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, making it the longest-running of the three Triple Crown races (the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby were first run in 1873 and 1875, respectively; the Belmont Stakes was canceled in 1911 and 1912). Sir Barton was the first to win the Triple Crown in 1919, almost a century ago. In the last 99 years, only 12 others have accomplished the task.

For many, Saturday was a chance to experience history firsthand. But for Mike Creighton, experiencing history was something he’d done before. A resident of Floral Park, living just blocks from the racetrack, he has attended at least 10 Belmont Stakes. His first one was in 1973 when he was 20.

“My first Belmont Stakes was Secretariat; that was an incredible horse,” he said of the 1973 Triple Crown winner who still holds the track records for fastest times at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

Creighton was here three years ago when American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Since the ’70s, he said the Stakes has been slowed by the demands of television.

“They don’t run races as often as they used to,” he said.

And as a local resident, he wasn’t particularly thrilled about the hockey arena being built nearby for the New York Islanders.

“It is what it is,” he said. “It seems like a waste, though. They should have just fixed up the [Nassau Coliseum].”

But those were concerns for another day. As Justify made his way down the home stretch and across the finish line, Creighton was celebrating with the rest of the 90,000, even if he had seen this before.

After the race ended, the second race began to the Long Island Rail Road station adjacent to the racetrack. Like the trip coming in, the train was packed and slow moving — the “express” train to Jamaica often moving at about 5 mph — but everyone on board was too excited about Justify’s victory.

Leo Giacometto was among those heading to Penn Station, where he would then catch a train back to Washington, D.C. He had come to see the race all the way from his ranch in Montana.

“We saw him win at the Preakness and I said, ‘we have got to go to Belmont, it’s a chance to see history,'” he said.

It turns out his faith was justified.

Reach reporter Luke Torrance by email at [email protected], by phone at 516-307-1045, ext. 214, or follow him on Twitter @LukeATorrance.

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