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.
This week we take a closer look at Justify, winner of the Grade 1, $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 5 at Churchill Downs. (Editor’s note: this is an updated version of a profile on Justify that ran after his Santa Anita Derby win.)
When I profiled Justify after his Santa Anita Derby victory, the key question was: could a colt with only three races handle the adversity sure to be thrown at him in a 20-horse field in front of more than 150,000 people while trying 1 ¼ miles for the first time in the Kentucky Derby? The answer turned out to be an emphatic “yes,” so let’s take a closer look at why Justify was able to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without a start as a 2-year-old.
Ability: A $500,000 purchase from the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Justify 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 and 100 Brisnet Speed Figure. You will begin to see a pattern here …
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, a 101 Beyer Speed Figure, and a 104 Brisnet Speed Figure.
At this point, the hype surrounding Justify began to intensify for good reason: here was an unbeaten 3-year-old with dazzling talent from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
While others correctly identified Justify as an elite talent early on, I wanted to see him tested in a graded stakes race against top competition before elevating him above more accomplished horses on the Derby trail. I had seen plenty of fast racehorses who could dominate overmatched rivals but wilted when challenged by better 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. My opinion of Justify changed significantly in the span of the 1:49.72 it took for Justify to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby as he soundly defeated a colt I held in the highest regard.
Justify 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. While he was unchallenged on the lead and dictated every facet of the Santa Anita Derby from start to finish, Justify passed a significant class test with flying colors.
Once again, the speed figures came back strong. He paired his 108 Equibase Speed Figure, earned a career-best 107 Beyer Speed Figure, and Brisnet awarded him a 114 speed figure, the highest number it has assigned in the Kentucky Derby points era.
In the Kentucky Derby, Justify utilized his natural speed to gain tactical position early, racing just off pacesetter Promises Fulfilled through a blistering half-mile in 45.77 seconds. That pace would have spoiled the chances of almost any 3-year-old, especially one with only three career starts, but when champion Good Magic came to challenge with about a quarter-mile remaining, Justify responded and put him away. He won by 2 ½ lengths over what was considered to be one of the best Kentucky Derby fields in recent history.
Yes, traffic problems and the sloppy racetrack hurt the chances of several of Justify’s top challengers, but the winner overcame the same crowd chaos, frenzied start, and adverse track conditions.
The fact that proven Grade 1 winners like Good Magic and Audible ran second and third, respectively, supports the premise that Justify was facing a strong group of 3-year-olds.
Despite a slow final time of 2:04.20 for the Kentucky Derby, the speed figures again came back strong. Justify earned a new career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure and a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. Timeform tweeted that Justify had “the fastest 4-race start to a career” based on its database dating to 2004, and his 127 Timeform figure for the Derby tied with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah as the fastest since 2005.
The picture painted here is that of a truly gifted racehorse, one who was able to overcome a historical, if overblown, trend by ending the “Curse of Apollo.”
Kentucky Derby winners this good don’t typically lose the Preakness Stakes, which means we are most likely looking at a Triple Crown bid for the fourth time in the last seven years.
Running style: Perhaps the most important reason Justify won the 2018 Kentucky Derby was his natural speed. It takes an incredibly high cruising speed to race a half-length off an opening quarter-mile in :22.24 and a half-mile in :45.77 and still have enough fuel in reserve to win a race going 1 ¼ miles against the best of your generation. It’s easy to say a racehorse has enjoyed perfect trips, and I was guilty of this in evaluating Justify’s Kentucky Derby chances, but he makes his own trip with his natural speed. He’s not going to lose that powerful asset anytime soon, so as long as he breaks reasonably well from the starting gate, Justify will be very difficult to defeat in the May 19 Preakness Stakes.
Connections: Bob Ehalt made a very good point in his post-Kentucky Derby edition of The Main Track: Bob Baffert did a remarkable job having Justify ready on Kentucky Derby day without a foundation of races as a 2-year-old and only three career starts. The Hall of Famer was rewarded with his 13th win in a U.S. Triple Crown race and his fifth victory in the Kentucky Derby (Silver Charm, 1997; Real Quiet, 1998; War Emblem, 2002; American Pharoah, 2015). The four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer has also won six Preakness Stakes and two Belmont Stakes, including a sweep of the Triple Crown with American Pharoah three years ago.
Baffert and fellow Hall of Fame Mike Smith have worked plenty of magic together through the years with 24 Grade 1 victories as a tandem, and they have been quite prolific in the last three years with Grade 1 winners Justify, McKinzie, West Coast, Drefong, Abel Tasman, Arrogate, and Mastery.
A two-time Eclipse Award winner, Smith earned his second Kentucky Derby win with Justify after winning aboard Giacomo in 2005. He won the Preakness in 1993 with Prairie Bayou and the Belmont Stakes twice with Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice in 2013. Smith ranks second all time among North American riders in career purse earnings with more than $310 million and is the career leader with 26 Breeders’ Cup wins.
Justify is owned by the partnership of China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm. In addition to Justify, the group also owns Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Audible, the Xpressbet Florida Derby winner.
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.
The 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, Madekat Stables, and Monomoy Stables. Kumin raced 2017 champion turf female Lady Eli and is the co-owner of this year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl, giving him a historic Oaks-Derby double. BSW Bloodstock, founded by Bradley Weisbord, has been instrumental in Kumin’s success.
Pedigree: Justify is from the seventh crop of 2007 Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy. He was one of four Kentucky Derby starters for Scat Daddy in this year’s Derby along with United Arab Emirates Derby winner Mendelssohn, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Flameaway, and Rebel Stakes third-place finisher Combatant.
An influential dual-hemisphere sire who died in 2015 at age 11, Scat Daddy has enjoyed success 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 had 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, but Justify is by far his most talented dirt horse to date.
Justify was produced by Stage Magic, by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. Stage Magic was a winner and 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.
I didn’t see any evidence from this pedigree before the Kentucky Derby that indicated Justify was not capable of running a big race in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, and he should be even tougher cutting back in distance for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes.
Justify came out of the Kentucky Derby with some sensitivity in his left hind leg that Baffert likened to a “diaper rash,” but he reportedly is doing very well and remains on target for the Preakness. The field for the second jewel of the Triple Crown looks significantly less daunting than the talent Justify faced in the Kentucky Derby. It is a race he should win on paper – with the true test of greatness coming when he faces many of the horses he defeated in the Kentucky Derby, with additional rest, in the Belmont Stakes as he also attempts to stretch out to 1 ½ miles.