Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
Justify’s 2018 season lasted 112 days, far less than any of the other great athletes featured in Sports Illustrated. It gets better: Justify’s entire career lasted 112 days. It began on a February Sunday in Southern California and it ended on the second Saturday in June at the Belmont Stakes in New York, where he finished off thoroughbred racing’s 13th Triple Crown—and the second in four years after a 37-year drought—with a victory in the Belmont Stakes. He ran six times and retired in the thin air of history. The sport had never seen anything like it, a career that defied convention and plausibility. It was as if an NFL team had skipped training camp and won the Super Bowl…. Three times.
Justify’s achievement was so astounding and so ephemeral that some racing pundits have ginned up a controversy over whether Justify should be voted Horse of the Year in the sport’s year-end Eclipse Awards, because his campaign was so brief and because he didn’t contest the summer and fall races against older horses (the Triple Crown is for three-year-olds, the thoroughbred equivalent of college freshmen) or the Breeders Cup. This campaign whiffs on the central point: Justify wasn’t great in spite of the brevity of his season and career, was great because of it. He wasn’t Emmitt Smith, he was Gale Sayers. He wasn’t John Smoltz, he was Mark (The Bird) Fidrych. His excellence is defined not by quantity, but by quality, a lifetime compressed into a single spring.
His trainer was Bob Baffert, the white-haired Hall of Fame impresario who guided American Pharoah to his Triple Crown in 2015, ridding the sport of the gap between triples that had haunted it more deeply with each passing year. That one took root more than a year in advance. This one came together in a blur. When Justify was walked into the starting gate for a seven-furlong race at Santa Anita, Calif., on Feb. 18, a towering chestnut, most of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes has already run several times and intricate schedules had been made. Justify didn’t run as a two-year-old and no horse since Apollo in 1882 had won the Kentucky Derby without running as a two-year-old. (Hence, the so-called “Apollo Curse.”) But in that first race, Justify ran himself into and then out of trouble and won. Baffert told me months later, “I thought, Wow, this is a serious horse.” He decided to take his precocious kindergartner and skip some grades.
Justify won two more prep races and then he won the Derby on the first Saturday in May. Two weeks later, worn down by his schedule and challenged in the slop by two-year-old champion Good Magic, he won again. At Belmont Park, he finished the job, and alongside Seattle Slew in 1977, became just the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner.
And then it was over. Justify was retired in July in a stud deal approaching $75 million, the richest in history. There was no incentive to keep him racing, the curse of the racing game that snatches up great horses in their prime. He was here and gone, a gift to those who watched, a prize for those who embraced. One of 13, but unlike all the others.