With decisive Kentucky Derby win, Justify emerges as Triple Crown threat
Three years ago, with the 37-year-old Triple Crown curse finally cast into the dust bin of history, Bob Baffert stood in the winners’ circle at Belmont Park and figured he would probably never get a horse in his barn as talented as American Pharoah.
It turns out, he only had to wait three years.
We’ll see if Justify can match American Pharoah’s accomplishments in two weeks at the Preakness Stakes and then perhaps at the Belmont on June 9. It’s horse racing, after all. There are no guarantees, and sweeping all three races takes a lot of luck.
But in winning the Kentucky Derby by 2½ lengths on Saturday, Justify looked like a superhorse-in-waiting, every bit the equal of the horse Baffert never thought could be matched.
“I knew I had something really special,” Baffert said. “But he had to prove it today.”
And he did, becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without running as a 2-year-old, which is remarkable because decades of history dictates that winning the Derby is a path that requires perfect preparation for months leading up to the first Saturday in May.
But as recently as Feb. 18, Justify hadn’t even made it to the racetrack. Any misstep in his preparation, any sign of immaturity, and he wouldn’t have qualified to get in the Kentucky Derby field. Most trainers with an unraced 3-year-old 10 weeks out from the Derby wouldn’t have even tried.
“I said, ‘Bob, don’t rush this horse,’” WinStar Farms CEO Elliott Walden said. “But he had a plan to get to the Derby before he ever ran.”
And all Justify has done since then is wow people every step of the way.
NBC analyst Randy Moss said Justify’s first career start, a 9 1/2-length victory, was perhaps the best debut he’d ever seen from a racehorse. His second win, on a muddy track, was just as visually impressive. And his third, a commanding victory in the Santa Anita Derby, was so easy that it begged the question whether he’d even been challenged enough to survive a rough-and-tumble, 20-horse field where he would undoubtedly be pressured in ways he hadn’t experienced.
Then on Saturday, on a track left soupy by more than three inches of rain, jockey Mike Smith let Justify challenge a pace that would be suicidal in the Kentucky Derby for just about any other horse. And it still didn’t matter.
As the first quarter went in 22.24 and the half-mile in 45.77 with Justify on the flank of longshot Promises Fulfilled, any experienced racetracker would have told you that it was too fast, particularly in such poor conditions.
Only a freak athlete in the class of an American Pharoah or Seattle Slew could run so fast and have anything left.
Justify, it seems, is in that class.
“I’ve never been on a 3-year-old like this,” Smith said.
After disposing of Promises Fulfilled and getting collared by Good Magic at the quarter pole, all it took was Smith letting out the reins, signaling to his horse that it was time to go. Three jumps later, the race was over.
It was devastating and decisive, and it’s hard to imagine anybody beating this horse in Baltimore in two weeks.
“That’s the best Kentucky Derby performance I’ve (had) here,” said Baffert, which is saying something considering he’s won the race five times now.
The talent, of course, was never in question. Even before he ever ran, Justify looked the part: Tall and muscular, the kind of equine athlete who stands out even among other well-bred stars in the same way your eye can differentiate elite basketball players from a physical marvel like LeBron James.
But those kinds of horses don’t always do it on the track.
Justify did from Day 1, to the point where Baffert thought the timer was wrong after his debut when he ran seven furlongs in a shade under 1:22.
“The first time we worked him, I talked to (Walden) and said, ‘I think we have something really special,’” Baffert said.
Now they know. Everyone does. And while the road to a Triple Crown sweep and racing immortality is still long and fraught with potential complications, Justify took the biggest step on Saturday in a race that not only confirmed his talent but solidified his greatness.