What a ride it’s been for Canadian John Gunther and Glennwood Farm.
Justify captured the Belmont Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths Saturday to become just the 13th U.S. Triple Crown champion and second since 1978. The majestic chestnut colt was bred at Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Ky., which is owned by Gunther and run by his daughter, Tanya.
“What an amazing experience, my heart was pounding and I had to sit down,” said Gunther, who witnessed Justify’s historic run at Belmont Park. “Everybody was in tears, the staff at Glennwood, my daughter and even myself.
“It’s just incredible to consider the horse’s first start was Feb. 18. What he’s accomplished in such a short time is just really incredible, I just don’t know what else to say.”
It was Tanya Gunther who paired Justify’s sire (Scat Daddy) and mare (Stage Magic). John Gunther credits his daughter’s encyclopedic understanding of blood-lines for creating the champion thoroughbred.
“This means everything to Glennwood,” said John Gunther. ”We’re a small, petite farm and now we’re going to be recognized around the world.
“Any time we’re consigning yearlings we’re going to get people certainly taking a second look at our consignments when we do sell yearlings. We’ve been able to brand something very special in what we’ve accomplished.”
The Gunthers knew shortly after Justify’s birth he was something special. In fact, John Gunther, of Langley, B.C., was so convinced Justify would win the Triple Crown he boldly predicted the sweep long before the horse’s Kentucky Derby win last month.
“What’s most impressive about him is his mental attitude, nothing upsets him at all,” Gunther said. “You look at 170,000 people yelling and screaming at the Kentucky Derby and he doesn’t even turn a hair.
“When we saw him in the paddock (Saturday), he just looked so typically fantastic. He even looked like he added a few pounds from the Preakness, I mean, this horse just recovers so amazingly quick.”
At 6-0, Justify joins the legendary Seattle Slew (1977) as the only two undefeated Triple Crown winners. Justify is also the first horse to register the sweep without racing as a two-year-old due to a pulled muscle.
Justify’s pedigree features plenty of Canadian content.
Scat Daddy’s bloodlines include Canadian-breds Nijinsky (an English Triple Crown champion), Northern Dancer and Storm Bird. Stage Magic’s genealogy features Canadian Hall of Famer Awesome Again — the 1997 Queen’s Plate and 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic champion — and Canadian-breds Deputy Minister, Vice Regent and Mint Copy.
By winning the Derby, Justify broke the dreaded Apollo Curse, becoming the first horse to win that race after not starting as a two-year-old since Apollo did in 1882.
Justify was a US$500,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase by China Horse Club and Maverick Racing. He earned $800,000 for winning the Belmont, boosting his career total to almost $3.8 million.
Justify’s quick ascent to North American prominence will undoubtedly put pressure on Glennwood to produce another Triple Crown contender. But it’s a challenge Gunther welcomes.
“To achieve a result like this, how do you beat it?”he said. “But you’ve got to keep doing it just to try it again
“We’ve just got to keep working and working and working and just try to produce more graded stakes winners.”
Justify joins a long list of champions Glennwood has bred or co-bred including First Samurai (Grade 1 winner, $915,075 earned); Mo Town (co-bred, Grade 1 winner); My Miss Sophia (second 2014 Kentucky Oaks); Stay Thirsty (co-bred, Grade 1 winner, $1.936 million); Stevie Wonderboy (co-bred, 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion, $1.059 million); and Tamarkuz (2016 Breeders’ Cup dirt mile winner, $1.84 million).
And Gunther might have to look no further than his farm for the next Justify. The Triple Crown winner’s yet unnamed half-brother is a yearling at Glennwood and is the spitting image of his older sibling.
“He’s as impressive as Justify was as a yearling,” Gunther said. “When the half-brother was foaled he was lying in the stall and his legs were so long that I said to Tanya, ‘Well, here’s one we can’t sell.’
“I didn’t even realize it was Justify’s half-brother and it was Stage Magic who’d had the foal.”
That goes against the traditional breeding business practice of selling the yearlings to help fund their operation. But Gunther opted to follow his gut with this decision, which came long before Justify’s emergence as a champion racehorse.
“If he can run like Justify or almost as good, that would do it,” Gunther said. ”If he could win a graded race it would be unbelievable.”
Especially considering another Stage Magic offspring, The Lieutenant, won a Grade III race last month, giving the mare two recent graded states winners.
“That mare is so special,” Gunther said. “She really puts everything into her foals.”
Gunther guesses Justify’s next race will be $1.25-million Grade 1 Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga, with an eventual appearance at the Breeder’s Cup. But with the Triple Crown in tow, Gunther believes the pressure is off Justify.
“No more pressure,” Gunther said. “He’s done everything I or anyone could dream of.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press