Justify easily captured his stakes debut in Saturday’s $1,000,345 Santa Anita Derby (G1) under jockey Mike Smith, scoring by three lengths to move his record to a perfect three-for-three and earn a spot in the starting gate for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
The chestnut son of Scat Daddy was sent off the 4-5 favorite in his black-type bow and took command soon after the start of the nine-furlong affair. Justify opened up a clear advantage on the field while setting splits of :23.96, :47.85, 1:12.61 and 1:37.02. Even-money second choice Bolt d’Oro led the rest of the group and began closing the gap on Justify entering the turn.
Those two separated themselves from the others and continued in that fashion into the stretch, with Bolt d’Oro rallying to challenge on the inside. Justify hit another gear but showed some greenness when drifting in and out from the whip. He held a comfortable three-length margin over Bolt d’Oro on the line and finished 1 1/8 miles over Santa Anita Park’s fast main track in 1:49.72.
The Santa Anita Derby is part of the Championship portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby and awarded Justify 100 points toward a starting berth in the Run for the Roses. He debuted on the Derby Leaderboard in eighth.
Bolt d’Oro moved down one spot on the Leaderboard after Good Magic and Vino Rosso took the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2), respectively, on Saturday. Like the Santa Anita Derby, those races were worth 100-40-20-10 points to the respective top four runners and shot Good Magic (134 Derby points) into the number spot and Vino Rosso (107) into fourth. Bolt d’Oro now sits in fifth with 104 points.
It was 6 1/2 lengths behind Bolt d’Oro to Santa Anita Derby third-placer Core Beliefs, who broke his maiden in his third try last out. The Quality Road colt earned 20 points for the Kentucky Derby but is not Triple Crown nominated. Instilled Regard, hero of the Lecomte Stakes (G3) and fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds most recently, filled the fourth spot in this one as well and is on the outside looking into the Kentucky Derby field from 22nd on the Leaderboard with 29 points.
Pepe Tono came next and was followed under the wire by Orbit Rain and Jimmy Chila.
Campaigned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm, Justify paid $3.80 for this win, which boosted his lifetime earnings to $666,000. The Bob Baffert trainee opened his career with a 9 1/2-length maiden victory at Santa Anita Park on February 18 and followed up last out with a 6 1/2-length score over a muddy, sealed track at that venue against allowance/optional claiming rivals.
Bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther, Justify is out of the Grade 3-placed Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, making him a half-brother to stakes runner-up The Lieutenant. His third dam is Grade 3 heroine Voodoo Lily, and this female line also boasts Grade 3 victor Mr. Livingston.
SANTA ANITA DERBY QUOTES
Mike Smith, jockey Justify, winner
“He rides with room to grow. He’s learning and it’s the first time he rides with the infield open, I don’t know if he saw the umbrellas and everyone screaming that he got to looking at them so much that I had to get the bit out of his mouth to really make him pay attention and that’s when he kind of skirted away and focused.
“What you’re seeing right now is really just raw talent. He’s got so much room to grow and to even get better, believe it or not. I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him. He handled a 1 1/8 really well and like I said what you’re seeing right now is just raw talent. If he moves forward off of this race, which he should, then it’s even kind of scary to talk about.”
Bob Baffert, trainer Justify, winner
“There was concern down the backside when he took off like that. I was worried about him. (Jockey) Mike (Smith) let him run a little bit but he said (Justify) saw something in the infield and he sort of spooked. He said I might want to put a little more bit on him to control him, and I told Mike he better start working out between now and then (May 5 Kentucky Derby) to hold him down.
“It was very exciting. Those are two really tough horses. I figure that race for Bolt d’Oro probably took a little bit out of him with McKinzie (in the San Felipe [G2] on March 10), but they’re two really good horses. I think the whole field is really tough.
“But Justify is just a natural and he’s just learning how to run. 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 he’s 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. I just feel fortunate to have him. It takes a lot of the sting out of what happened to McKinzie. It’s a tough business but we’ve just got to keep going.”
Jack Woolf of Starlight Racing, co-owner Justify, winner
“He did it pretty easy. We came in late on both him and Audible and they’re both Grade 1 winners. We’re just tagging along here with WinStar, the China Horse Club and Head of Plains…Even I couldn’t screw it up! We’ve got two great trainers with Bob here and Todd (Pletcher) back there.”
Javier Castellano, jockey Bolt d’Oro, second
“We were second best today. I wouldn’t change anything. I have no complaints and unfortunately, we were second best today.
“He felt great, perfect. 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.
“I told (owner and trainer) Mick (Ruis) that it was a very good race. The best horses in the country showed up today and gave a great performance. This was Justify’s game plan and it suited him, his ability to be able to go to the lead. I had to try and catch him today. I think it will be interesting in the (Kentucky) Derby because I think there will be more speed, it will be interesting. It will suit my horse, he’ll be able to sit off that faster pace but I’m still very satisfied with today and my horse’s performance.
“It was emotional turning for home because I’m trying to catch the best horse in the country and I’m thinking, ‘I’m happy. I’m very pleased.’
“Justify has the ability to go to the lead, has a lot of speed and he took it easily today.”
Mick Ruis, owner/trainer Bolt d’Oro, second
“I didn’t think the fractions were real, real fast. I think it was a good race and was what we needed. Hopefully we come out of here really good and get that mile and a quarter. We knew we were up against it a little 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 two lengths of the winner, so this is one we can build off and go to Churchill Downs.
“I wanted to go in here really positive, so I think this is a nice race coming off that really hard race (the San Felipe Stakes). Hopefully we get to come back really good.”
Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin, world middleweight champion who presented the trophy and defends his title on Kentucky Derby Day, May 5
“That was a classic win and it will be a nice daily double when Justify wins the Kentucky Derby and I win my fight that night.”