The Curse of Apollo be damned.
Undefeated Justify became the first horse to go unraced at two and win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve since Apollo in 1882 with a performance so authoritative that fans immediately had thoughts of a second Triple Crown champion in four years dancing in their heads.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert fueled such giddy speculation when he put Justify in the same company as 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah and Arrogate, the 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic winner. “Him and American Pharoah and Arrogate…they are so great,” he said on NBC.
Baffert’s son of Scat Daddy splashed across the finish line 2 ½ lengths ahead of Good Magic, the 2-year-old champion, in brightening an overcast and rainy Saturday afternoon. Good Magic kept his head in front of rallying Audible on a sloppy surface at Churchill Downs.
Justify is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. The last of those entities belongs to Sol Kumin, the first owner to sweep the Longines Kentucky Oaks and the Derby in the same year since Calumet Farm in 1952. Kumin had celebrated on Friday when Monomoy Girl overcame the farthest outside post to take the Oaks.
Baffert recalled a conversation in which he related to Elliott Walden how special he believed Justify could be after the colt’s first formal workout. His opinion of the 3-year-old only grew after that.
“I knew I had something really special,” the silver-haired trainer said. “He had to prove it today.”
Baffert thought the key to the outcome involved his horse’s ability to break as alertly as he did from post seven.
“We had to get out of the gate or we were heading out the back gate,” he said.
Justify did not debut until Feb. 18, when he rolled by 9 ½ lengths in the first of three successive starts at Santa Anita Park. An emphatic 6 ½-length allowance scored followed, leading to an authoritative 3-length verdict in the Santa Anita Derby.
Jockey Mike Smith, 52, strained for adjectives strong enough to fit Justify. “I can’t describe how special this horse is,” he said. “I don’t have the words for it.”
But he kept trying, just as his mount did as he stayed just off a torrid and unsustainable pace set by Promises Fulfilled, who tore through an opening quarter in 22.24 seconds and a wicked half-mile that went in 45.77 and caused him to wilt.
Justify sat just off the leader, seemingly loping along effortlessly. Promises Fulfilled called it an early day and Justify roared into the lead. Good Magic briefly menaced him early in the stretch run.
“I really thought I was going to get there,” said Good Magic’s jockey Jose Ortiz. “It felt great to be in the position I was in. My horse tried so hard.”
But there was no getting to the winner and no getting close to him.
“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,” Smith said. “He’s got incredible talent and a mind to go with it. For a young horse, he’s just so big and talented.”
So talented that he overcame his lack of seasoning, a factor that doomed so many others before him. According to the Wall Street Journal, 61 horses since 1937 started in the opening leg of the Triple Crown that were unraced at two. Just eight of those finished in the money.
Well, that daunting history proved inconsequential this time.
“The curse thing really didn’t bother me,” Baffert said. “I was just worried about us, making sure we did everything right, shipping right.”
Baffert moved into second place in winning his fifth Derby from among 29 starters. He earned his previous victories with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and, of course, American Pharoah. He trails only “Plain Ben” Jones, who enjoyed a remarkable stretch from 1938-1952. Jones brought home the roses six times in 11 starts.
Smith, despite his “Big Money Mike” moniker, had produced just one victory in 23 previous Derby tries, that coming aboard 50.30-1 Giacomo in 2005. Justify was hardly a longshot. Sent off at 2.90-1 odds, he became the sixth consecutive favorite to win the Run for the Roses and paid $7.80, $6.00 and $4.40. Justify covered the mile and a quarter in 2:04.20.
Instilled Regard and My Boy Jack completed the top five finishers. Mendelssohn, attempting to become the first Europe-based horse to win the Run for the Roses, appeared to be star-crossed in finishing last.
“He got beat up out of the gate and proceeded to check on the first turn and was never in a good place,” said Ryan Moore, his jockey.
For Baffert, the fun was just beginning. The victory was so commanding that he was able to lean back and savor the last powerful strides.
“I knew the last eighth of a mile he was going to win,” he said. “He just put himself up there with the greats.”
And if Justify can string together two more performances like this, he will almost surely join the legends as the 13th Triple Crown champion.