December 13, 2018

Justify is On the Kentucky Derby Trail; What Happens Next?

Photos by Benoit


Justify’s career bow was so impressive that he’s already as high as #3 on some people’s Kentucky Derby polls. But before the son of Scat Daddy can win North America’s most prestigious race, he’ll be expected to perform well in his next start—likely at a short price.

Racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has yet to decide where to send the $500,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase for career start number two, but regardless of the spot he opts for he will take on significantly stronger competition than the compact group of protected non-winners he beat last weekend.

Situations like this beg an interesting question to horseplayers.

Do you trust the monster 100 Speed Rating and “the way” Justify did it on debut or do you assume he is unlikely to repeat that sort of effort since he will be facing far more battle-tested animals, many with multiple victories next time out, at a longer distance, possibly following a ship, etc.

As a handicapper, generally speaking I try to beat horses like Justify that take on stakes company off of one big effort, but only if their price lacks what I determine to be fair value. For example, if Justify is 5-1 next month in the Sunland Derby I will be extremely interested in wagering on him. At 4-to-5? Not so much.

Regardless of where Justify races next he is likely to be heavily backed, but can racing fans count on him to replicate his first start or move forward or is regression highly possible?

Given the success of Baffert in the Triple Crown series there is reason to believe that the son of Scat Daddy cannot only win his next race, but he can become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at the age of two. There are also reasons to believe that Justify will have things much tougher in his attempt to begin his career a perfect 2 for 2.

Firstly, the move into stakes-company and a larger field brings with it a stronger likelihood that Justify will encounter more challenging circumstances than he did on debut.

In that start, Justify overcame a slightly tardy beginning, pushed between rivals to duel with stable mate Show Time Rocket, took control on the turn and drew off to an eye-popping nine and a half length victory under jockey Drayden Van Dyke.

Outside of breaking a bit flat-footed Justify used his tactical speed and class to work out a perfect trip. It is possible he will be able to do that again next time out, but it is also far more likely that things will not go as smoothly. Especially if he fails to break with conviction in start number two.

In addition to the likelihood of a more challenging voyage next time out, there is a strong possibility that handicappers will also have to take into consideration whether Justify will run as well out of town. Unless Baffert decides to run him in the San Felipe on March 10th, his next start will be at another venue. There is no guarantee that Justify will take to the new surface quite like he did to the Santa Anita main track.

Many horses bring their “A’ game with them no matter where they travel to, but horses like Beholder and Lava Man simply did not run as well away from home. You really never know until they race on the road, but it certainly is something to keep in mind before you go “all in” on a short priced colt.

Regardless of your opinion on where Justify fits amongst Kentucky Derby contenders his presence adds to the intrigue for the 2018 “Run for the Roses.” I cannot wait to see how he performs against stiffer competition next month.

As an aside, Baffert already has saddled a highly acclaimed so-called Apollo curse in the Kentucky Derby when Bodemeister tried to wire the 2012 field but got caught by Santa Anita Derby winner and eventual dual classic winner and champion three-year-old male I’ll Have Another late. Bodemeister did not race again after the Preakness Stakes.

Scott Shapiro is a handicapper who provides Daily Selections full-card analysis with best bets; follow him on Twitter @ScottShap34.

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