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A Horse Named Justify


The Curse of Apollo says, or said, that if a horse wasn't racing by his second year, he'd never win the Kentucky Derby. But Justify did that in May. Then he won the Preakness. Tonight, he goes for the last jewel of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. In horseracing, this is a phenomenal achievement, especially for a horse as inexperienced as Justify is, as Charles Lane from member station WSHU reports.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Justify is a huge, chestnut 3-year-old. He has a white stripe down his face and ears that always seem perked and ready.

BOBBY COMMODORE: He's a special horse, absolutely. There's no question about that.

LANE: Bobby Commodore is a handler riding ahead of Justify toward the racetrack. From afar, he watches Justify.

COMMODORE: You wish you had a horse that trains like him every day like that horse does.

LANE: What do you mean?

COMMODORE: He's a monster. He's a bear, you know? He just carries himself more professionally.

LANE: Sean Tugel works for WinStar Farm, one of Justify's owners. He says Justify never should have made it this far.

SEAN TUGEL: Justify was behind the eight ball. What he's doing, he shouldn't be doing. It's incredible.

LANE: Normally, a racehorse's second year is like their rookie year - learning the ropes and putting on muscle. Justify missed all of that because of an injury.

TUGEL: Just had a little setback. So he had some foundation training, but he didn't have that racing.

LANE: Imagine seeing for the first time all of the commotion of spectators and the bugles and a herd of other horses. Not being accustomed to that is the route of Apollo's Curse. Not since 1882 has a horse won the Kentucky Derby without going through that rookie season. But Justify overcame that.

TUGEL: All these other horses were freaking out, acting up. And he just walked around like it was just any other day, like it was a Wednesday. And there's 150,000 people screaming for him. That's what separates him from all the other horses. He doesn't waste any energy getting nervous about a situation. He just shows up and runs.

LANE: Tugel says, some of the time, you can pick a winning racehorse by his presence. Is he socially confident? Does he look at the horses in the eye? He introduces me to another horse like that, Chublicious, who's mature enough to eat peppermint candies from your hand.

But Apollo's Curse wasn't just superstition. There's a bit of science behind it, too. All the strain of actual racing changes the shape of a horse's bones. They go from tubular shape to oblong and heavy on the bottom side.

TUGEL: You build bone. You lay bone down by training, by going out there and running. You build bone. You make the bones stronger.

LANE: That's what Justify missed. Carolyn Cannizzo is an equine veterinarian. She says Justify's size just made him a late bloomer.

CAROLYN CANNIZZO: Sometimes those bigger horses aren't mature enough to run as a 2-year-old, so it takes them until their 3-year-old until they grow into their, you know, physical frame and fill out and get the muscle that they need to become successful racehorses.

LANE: But then there's this other quality. Tugel calls it the X factor. Cannizzo calls at heart.

CANNIZZO: Like, we have horses, they don't have the most talent in the world, but they have such a big heart and try so hard that it makes them good racehorses.

LANE: Tugel and Cannizzo say Justify has that heart. Oddsmakers have him as the favorite, too, by far. And even if he loses, he's still worth a lot of money. His breeding rights were sold for more than $60 million plus a bonus if he wins the Stakes. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane at Belmont Park in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF DO MAKE SAY THINK'S "DO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including three SPJ Public Service Awards, a National Murrow, and he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.