October 27, 2020

Justify fuels Kentucky Derby dreams in allowance romp

Justify brings a lofty reputation to the Santa Anita Derby ©Benoit Photo

It was just an allowance race, with a scratch-reduced field of five, on a muddy, sealed track. But Justify turned Santa Anita’s 5TH race into so much more – the stage for an irresistible force, now on a collision course with the immovable object of Kentucky Derby (G1) history.

Stepping up to two turns off his seven-furlong debut dazzler on February 18, the Bob Baffert trainee was hammered into 1-20 favoritism, and turned in a performance commensurate with his odds. His raw physical power was on full display, albeit against inferior rivals.

Justify wasn’t that quick into stride from the outside gate for Hall of Famer Mike Smith, but it didn’t take him long to secure a good stalking position as Calexman dashed ahead through splits of :22.42 and :45.10. Initially alongside Shivermetimbers, Justify left him standing and went after Calexman on the far turn. It was a mismatch.

As track announcer Michael Wrona aptly noted, “Justify, in the twinkling of an eye…”

Justify inhaled the leader with a circling move that propelled him to the lead faster than Wrona could call it. The chestnut beast by Scat Daddy was already 2 1/2 lengths clear at the six-furlong mark in 1:09.64, and the stretch run was a formality.

With Smith perched in the saddle as if he didn’t have a care in the world, Justify galloped ever farther ahead. He had to be expending effort while reaching seven furlongs in 1:22.28, and crossing the wire in 1:35.73 for the mile, but you’d never know it from his bearing, his efficient action, and those pricked ears.

Wrona again found the descriptive phrase: “He’d have to race in outer space to feel any less pressure!”

And with Saturday’s epic San Felipe (G2) between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie fresh in the memory, Wrona did not hesitate to express the idea forming in racing fans’ minds:

“Just who is the most talented three-year-old to race this weekend?”

Bettors piled into Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which closed at 6 p.m. (EDT) about 90 minutes after the race, and made Justify the new favorite among the individual interests. His odds shortened to 6-1, and Bolt d’Oro ticked up to 7-1, with the mutuel field of “All Others” favored at 4-1.

The official margin was 6 1/2 lengths back to Shivermetimbers, followed by Pepe Tono, Calexman, and Tap Fever. Baffert’s other runner, Curly’s Rocket, was a vet scratch, while All Out Blitz and Platinum Equity were withdrawn by their respective trainers, Simon Callaghan and Richard Baltas.

Justify will face his first true test of class next time in a major Derby prep, where he’ll have to score the all-important points to get into the starting gate. If that hurdle is surmounted, then he must defy the “Apollo curse,” that no unraced two-year-old has gone on to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882.

Can his exceptional talent offset his inexperience, and the lack of foundation as a juvenile?

Smith thinks it’s possible.

“That was extremely impressive,” the Hall of Famer said. “He passed the two-turn test with flying colors…For a young horse, he has a great mind. That might allow him to catch up (on the Derby trail) even sooner than a normal horse, because of the talent and the mind to go with it.

“That (acceleration around the far turn) came so natural. He switched leads and naturally opened up his stride and was two in front. I was like ‘Wow.’ I didn’t ask him to move and he just did that extremely easily. He came off that turn like it was a stroll. Just very, very impressed.”

Smith put Justify in an elite category.

“I hate to compare him to other horses right now, but doesn’t he remind you of an Easy Goer way back in the day? Just a big ol’ red horse with a big, powerful stride. The distance didn’t seem to bother him.  I know that was just a mile, but he could have galloped out another quarter of a mile if he had to.”

Baffert was not available to regale scribes, since he was en route to Florida for this week’s OBS March Sale.

A $500,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, Justify races for the partnership of China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, and new shareholders Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. He was bred by John D. Gunther in Kentucky from the Grade 3-placed Stage Magic, a daughter of Hall of Famer Ghostzapper.

Justify sports the potent Rasmussen Factor of inbreeding to a superior female. His duplication comes by way of 4×4 inbreeding to full sisters Yarn (grandam of Scat Daddy’s sire Johannesburg) and Preach (dam of Pulpit, who appears as the broodmare sire of Stage Magic). Yarn and Preach are by Mr. Prospector and out of Narrate, descended from Round Table’s full sister Monarchy.