The $1 million, Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby was all but decided in the backstretch run.
Justify, who burst onto the Triple Crown trail this year without even participating in a stakes race, got into the freak stride – that cruising gallop that the best in the game seem to do so effortlessly.
Multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro did his best to cut into the large lead Justify built on the front end in the final turn of the 1 1/8-mile test at Santa Anita Park, but the leader kept his powerful stride forging on.
Bolt d'Oro nearly got within a length in that final bend, but then Bob Baffert-trained Justify took his rival's best shot and shrugged it off in a three-length victory. After a few cracks of the whip from jockey Mike Smith in the final sixteenth, the son of Scat Daddy hit the wire in 1:49.72.
Owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm, Justify earned 100 qualifying points for the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with the win. He entered the Santa Anita Derby with no points.
"Justify is just a natural and he's just learning how to run," Baffert said after his eighth Santa Anita Derby win. "He has that big, beautiful stride. ... He reminds you a lot of Point Given – just a big, red-train type of horse. He's quick and light on his feet. It's just good that he showed up. He did what we thought and were hoping he was going to do."
The two favorites broke best out of the gate, but Justify easily cleared the field from post 6 and cruised to the lead. Bolt d'Oro settled into second with a clear target ahead of him. Justify set fractions of :23.96, :47.85, and 1:12.61 through six furlongs, but then the field began to creep up, led Bolt d'Oro, as the horses approached the final turn. That rush, for everyone not named Bolt d'Oro, ended rather quickly, as the top pair kicked away from their overmatched challengers.
Under jockey Javier Castellano, Bolt d'Oro shifted to the inside of Justify in the stretch and hung in for a while, but was no match late. Justify doubled his 1 ½-length lead from the furlong pole to the wire.
"He felt great – perfect," Castellano said of Bolt d’Oro. "He felt good and did everything the right way. He broke well out of the gate, and unfortunately we were running against the best horse in the country. ... The best horse in the country showed up today and gave a great performance. This was Justify's game plan and it suited him. I think it will be interesting in the (Kentucky) Derby, because I think there will be more speed."
Last-out maiden winner Core Beliefs finished third, 6 ½ lengths behind Bolt d'Oro, and was followed by Instilled Regard, Pepe Tono, Orbit Rain, and Jimmy Chila to complete the order of finish.
Justify aced his debut by 9 ½ lengths less than two months ago in a seven-furlong maiden special weight race Feb. 18 at Santa Anita. Then came the easiest of allowance scores (6 ½ lengths) going a mile over a sloppy main track at Santa Anita March 11.
"What you're seeing right now is really just raw talent," Smith said. "He's got so much room to grow and get even better, believe it or not. I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him. He handled (a mile and an eighth) really well and, like I said, what you're seeing right now is just raw talent.
"If he moves forward off this race, which he should, then it's even kind of scary to think about."
Bolt d'Oro's owner and trainer, Mick Ruis, expressed hope his colt will also improve off his Santa Anita Derby effort with an extra furlong to run on the first Saturday in May.
"I think it was a good race and was what we needed," Ruis said. "Hopefully we come out of here really good and get that mile and a quarter (in the Kentucky Derby). We knew we were up against it at a mile and an eighth and that we would have an advantage when he goes a little longer.
"This is a good steppingstone. We were within (three) lengths of the winner, so this is one we can build off and go to Churchill Downs."