Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
I’ll admit I was not a believer in Justify entering the Santa Anita Derby. I’d seen too many 3-year-olds beat up on weak maiden and allowance fields in the winter only to get weeded out with the challenge in class that comes in stakes competition. It’s not that I didn’t think he was talented, but I was skeptical because Justify was untested. But in the Santa Anita Derby, Justify defeated my previous top Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve horse, Bolt d’Oro, by three lengths and will almost certainly enter the first jewel of the Triple Crown as the morning-line favorite. Let’s take a closer look at Justify.
Ability: A $500,000 purchase from the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Justify did not race as a 2-year-old and thus is challenging the “Curse of Apollo”. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without at least one race as a 2-year-old since Apollo accomplished the feat in 1882.
He debuted on Feb. 18, 2018, and made a terrific first impression when romping by 9 ½ lengths in a maiden special weight race at seven-eighths of a mile at Santa Anita Park. The 103 Equibase Speed Figure was impressive for a debut runner as was the 104 Beyer Speed Figure.
Justify continued to impress in his second race, stretching out to a mile on a muddy main track at Santa Anita, where he again dominated in a 6 ½-length runaway that earned a 108 Equibase Speed Figure and a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.
At this point, Justify’s hype train really started to gain momentum and for good reason: An unbeaten 3-year-old with dazzling talent from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is exciting.
About the time the dust from his second victory had settled and he got back to training, the hype around Justify intensified to the point that he was being compared with past superstars. I thought — and still think — those comparisons were premature. I wanted to see Justify tested in a graded stakes race against elite competition before elevating him to the top three of any Kentucky Derby top 10 over far more accomplished horses. From my perspective, I’ve seen plenty of fast racehorses who could dominate overmatched rivals but wilted when challenged by top competition or faced adversity.
Justify faced the former in the Santa Anita Derby but not the latter and put on a memorable display, turning aside multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro near the top of the stretch and surging away to a decisive three-length win.
I’d be lying if I said my opinion of Justify did not change significantly in the span of the 1:49.72 it took for Justify to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
Justify defeated my top Derby horse soundly and the second viewing was as impressive to me as the first. He set a solid tempo through a half-mile in :47.85, answered the bell when Bolt d’Oro took his shot, and finished the final eighth of a mile in a solid 12.70 seconds. I would have liked to see him finish a little faster and face some adversity in the race — he was unchallenged on the lead and dictated every facet of the Santa Anita Derby from start to finish — but Justify passed a significant class test with flying colors.
The speed figures similarly came back very strong. He matched his 108 Equibase Speed Figure, which would indicate he could perhaps take a step forward in the Kentucky Derby.
Other speed figure makers felt he had shown significant improvement in his stakes debut: Daily Racing Form gave him a career-best 107 Beyer Speed Figure, the best for any Derby prep to date; Brisnet awarded him a 114 speed figure, the highest number it has assigned in the Kentucky Derby points era; and TimeForm gave him a whopping 132 rating, three points better than runner-up Bolt d’Oro and eight points better than the 124 McKinzie earned in the Sham Stakes, which had served as the benchmark in points races in 2018.
Barring an otherworldly performance in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, undefeated Justify is your Kentucky Derby favorite for 2018 and for very good reason. He’s the fastest horse in the field, handled his first true class test, showed he can excel around two turns, and has a win on an off-track.
Justify probably will not be my pick to win the Derby — he will face adversity in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field and will be shipping to race for the first time — but he absolutely earned his status as the favorite and should be formidable on the first Saturday in May.
Running style: Justify led from start to finish in his debut and in the Santa Anita Derby. In between, he stalked the pace in his allowance win when another horse went out and drilled a blistering opening half-mile in :45.10. The key is Justify has a ton of speed that is incredibly useful when facing 19 other horses all vying for precious real estate in the Kentucky Derby. Part of the reason Justify face little to no adversity in the Santa Anita Derby was because he used his speed to give Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith the opportunity to dictate terms. He can set the pace or stalk if the pace comes up hot in the Derby, which many expect to be the case.
Connections: The powerful combination of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith give Justify a heck of a one-two punch.
In just the last three years, Baffert and Smith have teamed to win Grade 1 races with Justify, McKinzie, West Coast, Drefong, Abel Tasman, Mor Spirit, Arrogate, and Mastery.
Baffert has won 2,839 races through April 9, including 491 graded stakes wins, and his credentials in Triple Crown races are impeccable. The four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer swept the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah and has won four Kentucky Derbys, six Preakness Stakes, and two Belmont Stakes.
Two-time Eclipse Award winner Smith ranks second all time among North American riders in career purse earnings with more than $309 million and is the career leader with 26 Breeders’ Cup wins. His lone Kentucky Derby win to date came in 2005 with Giacomo. Smith also won the Preakness in 1993 with Prairie Bayou and the Belmont Stakes twice with Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice in 2013.
Justify is owned by the partnership of China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm, the exact same group that owns 2018 Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible, who figures to be second or third in the Kentucky Derby wagering behind Justify.
The talent does not stop there, however, as Bob Ehalt detailed in this week’s edition of The Main Track, this group of owners is tied to multiple 2018 Kentucky Derby hopefuls in different partnerships.
WinStar Farm, owned and co-founded by Kenny Troutt, won the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner in 2010 and outstanding breeder in 2016. WinStar homebred Super Saver prevailed in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and Drosselmeyer won the 2010 Belmont Stakes. WinStar also owned 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator in partnership and bred 2003 dual classic winner and champion Funny Cide.
China Horse Club was founded by Teo Ah Khing, the architect who designed Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. Jack and Laurie Wolf operate Starlight Racing and campaigned champions Ashado and Shanghai Bobby. Head of Plains is one of the racing operations of Sol Kumin, who also has ownership interests with Sheep Pond Partners, Madaket Stables, and Monomoy Stables. Kumin raced 2017 champion turf female Lady Eli.
Pedigree: Justify is from the seventh crop of 2007 Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy, who also has United Arab Emirates Derby winner Mendelssohn and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Flameaway for this year’s Kentucky Derby as well as probable Arkansas Derby entrant Combatant.
An influential dual-hemisphere sire who died in 2015 at age 11, Scat Daddy has enjoyed success on with grass runners based in the U.S. led by elite sprinters Lady Aurelia and No Nay Never, 2017 Beverly D. Stakes winner Dacita, and Grade 1 winners Celestine, Daddys Lil Darling, Harmonize, and Lady of Shamrock.
He has proved capable in the past of siring top dirt runners for the Derby and Triple Crown trails, such as El Kabeir, Daddy Nose Best, Frac Daddy, and Handsome Mike, before his slew of candidates this year.
Justify was produced by Stage Magic, by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. Stage Magic was a winner at one mile and 1 1/16 miles and placed in four stakes races during her career. His grandam (maternal grandmother), Magical Illusion, by Pulpit, won three of six starts and finished third in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 ¼ miles in 2004. Justify’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Voodoo Lily, was a graded stakes-winning sprinter who earned more than $250,000.
My hunch is that Justify might be damn near unbeatable at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles in the second half of the year, especially against 3-year-olds. I don’t think 1 ¼ miles ultimately will be his ideal distance, but I don’t see any evidence from this pedigree that indicates he isn’t capable of running a big one on the first Saturday in May.
My hesitation in picking Justify is based almost entirely upon his inexperience. I don’t know how he will react to being pressed on his outside flank by a rank opponent or stumbling out of the starting gate or getting dirt kicked in his face while boxed in along the rail. The same, I suppose, applies to most of the Kentucky Derby contenders, but the lack of seasoning and foundation that comes with only three starts and no races at 2 is a legitimate quip with a Kentucky Derby favorite.