Canadian Tanya Gunther is quite the matchmaker.
On Saturday, Justify will attempt to win the Belmont Stakes and become the 13th thoroughbred — and second since 1978 — to clinch the U.S. Triple Crown. It was Gunther who paired Justify's parents after poring over their respective bloodlines.
Justify was bred at Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Ky., which Gunther runs for her father, John. She paired stallion Scat Daddy, a Grade 1 winner, with Stage Magic, a mare the Gunthers own, to produce the 2018 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion.
"I remember someone asking me what I thought of Scat Daddy as a stallion and I said I really liked him," Tanya Gunther said. "I was met with deafening silence and I remember thinking, 'Oh well, I guess I'm on my own then.'
"When I went to see Scat Daddy, the one thing I noticed was he had a very flowing, fluid walk. It was years before we bred him but I remember being surprised, 'Oh, he's quite a nice looking stallion,' and he moved so well."
John Gunther credits his daughter's encyclopedic understanding of blood-lines and attention for creating the champion thoroughbred. Tanya grew up riding horses in Langley, B.C., and left a career in investment banking for the breeding business.
"She has studied pedigrees since she was eight or nine," he said. "It was her hard work and diligence that picked Scat Daddy to breed to our mare."
Scat Daddy was a tough, determined horse that finished in the money in seven of nine lifetime starts (five wins, one second, one third) before suffering a career-ending tendon injury in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. He entered stud in 2008 and sired 69 stakes winners, reportedly fetching up to $150,000 for stud fees before his death in 2015 at age 11.
But Glennwood is said to have only paid $35,000 because Tanya Gunther spotted the stallion early.
Justify heads into the demanding 1 1/2-mile Belmont as the heavy 4/5 favourite but the distance won't be his lone challenge in Elmont, N.Y. The unbeaten chestnut will run his sixth race since February against eight well-rested rivals looking to halt his historic run.
John Gunther boldly predicted before the Preakness that Justify would capture the Triple Crown. Tanya agrees, although not quite so emphatically.
"I'm more conservative about these things than my dad," she said with a chuckle. "I think (Justify's) talent may be superior to the group he's running against now.
"When (trainer Bob) Baffert says Justify breathes different air, I know what he means. Justify has surprised me and others throughout his life, he just seems a class apart in everything he's done."
Since 1978, 13 horses have fallen short in the Belmont after winning the opening two legs. Canadian-bred Northern Dancer — horse-racing's most prolific sire — endured that fate in 1964, finishing third at Belmont Park after Derby and Preakness wins.
"I suspect the mile and a half won't be Justify's best distance but I look at his class and energy, the way he's doing everything coming into this," Tanya Gunther said. "You can see the professionalism he's gained over the Triple Crown and he also travels well, he moves so efficiently.
"When you do the mile and a half at Belmont you do need some speed and he has that. All of these, I think, factor into it."
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.
The 11-year-old mare is also a descendant of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner. Her sire, Ghostzapper, was known for his stamina, as was A.P. Indy, another horse in Stage Magic's bloodlines.
So while breeding horses can be trial and error, there's definitely a gameplan involved.
This year's Derby featured four starters from Scat Daddy's penultimate crop. But Gunther said Stage Magic also deserves credit for Justify's success.
"She always tried hard," Gunther said. "She didn't have the efficient movement Justify has.
"I can only imagine the races she would've won if she did."
A key element breeders can't instill is heart. But Gunther said Stage Magic's mare, Magical Illusion. had plenty.
"She showed so much heart," Gunther said. "We didn't race her but later in her life she had an arthritic injury but just soldiered through and was such a sport about the pain she was experiencing.
"(Heart) is the most important thing but it's something you can't see on paper ... If I can know one thing it would be that, first and foremost."
What separates Gunther from other breeders is consistency. Justify is Glennwood's first Derby winner but joins a long list of champions it 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).
Justify was a $500,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase by China Horse Club and Maverick Racing. Gunther knew early Justify was different.
"We handled him through his yearling year and I remember once keeping him for something while his buddies were outside," Gunther said. "When we were done, I took him and he was really keen to get out and I had to rush my step to keep up with him and I'm a fast walker.
"He wasn't jogging, he just had a walk so big. He was like that the entire time we had him, when he wanted to do something he did it and we could come along for the ride."
Gunther dislikes having to sell yearlings and admits letting Justify go was hard.
"That's so difficult," she said. "Justify always knew where all four feet were and by that I mean he always knew where his body was.
"Some horses go through stages, he never did."
Justify's success has brought Glennwood Farm much notoriety. While a Triple Crown winner would be the operation's first, Gunther said that would merely be icing on the cake.
"I'm so proud of Justify and the entire family," Gunther said. "But I'm most thankful to the farm and my dad for listening when I wanted to breed to Scat Daddy.
"If you really believe in what you do and happen to be good at it, you can't look so much at the odds or expenses for the year. You just have to follow your dream, believe in yourself and persevere."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press