Justify continued to dazzle making his first stakes attempt in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), posting a convincing wire-to-wire victory and guaranteeing himself favoritism in the Kentucky Derby.
It’s been a whirlwind process for a 3-year-old who made his career debut only 48 days prior to Saturday and Justify has proved special from the get-go. He brings an air of superiority to the process, a brilliant performer capable of running rivals into the ground with massive strides, and registered the fastest BRIS Speed rating (114) in the six-year history of the Kentucky Derby points system winning Santa Anita Derby
The bright chestnut will face new challenges on May 5 and foundation has proven crucial over the last 144 years of the Kentucky Derby, with no unraced 2-year-old winning since 1882. And there appears to be more depth and quality in the 2018 edition than recent years. Those concerns are easily dismissed by supporters who point to talent over experience and believe streaks are made to be broken.
Vino Rosso shrugged off a couple of setbacks at Tampa Bay Downs with an encouraging win in the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct, rallying to score by three lengths, and joined fellow Todd Pletcher stablemates Audible, Magnum Moon and Noble Indy in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. The late-running son of Curlin put himself in the mix of upset contenders and offers appeal underneath for vertical exotics (Exacta, Trifecta, Superfecta and Super High-5).
Good Magic rebounded in the Blue Grass (G2), notching his second career victory with a 1 ½-length decision. He has some upside making his third start off the layoff in the Kentucky Derby but the 2-year-old champ hasn’t been close to the 105 Speed and 109 Late Pace BRIS numbers from a splashy Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) win, earning a respective 98 and 93 in the Blue Grass.
Santa Anita Derby
Four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert has labeled him a “freak” and a wide range of superlatives can be used to describe Justify. Baffert redirected the son of Scat Daddy from the Arkansas Derby (G1) to the Santa Anita Derby following an injury to McKinzie and that left his charge as the lone speed in a seven-horse field that included a pair of hopeless maidens.
Naturally fast and built to run longer distances, Justify possesses the extra gear to separate himself from the pack and quickly dismissed a challenge from well-regarded Bolt d’Oro in upper stretch, allowing his rival a glimmer of hope before accelerating away with an inspiring turn of foot. His BRIS Early Pace numbers are huge and he garnered an eye-popping 117 Late Pace rating in the Santa Anita Derby.
Justify was left to his own accord from the start, establishing manageable splits of :23.96 and :47.85 without a hint of pressure, and everything’s been so easy for him in all three career starts. Connections bypassed a truer test in the Arkansas Derby, which will feature a pair of accomplished front-runners in Magnum Moon and Quip, and Justify won’t be battle-tested heading to Churchill Downs.
Perhaps it won’t matter as Justify continues to blossom in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“What you’re seeing right now is just raw talent,” jockey Mike Smith said. “If he moves forward off of this race, which he should, then it’s even kind of scary to talk about.”
“Justify is just a natural and he’s just learning how to run,” Baffert added. “He has that big, beautiful stride.”
When he’s exciting audiences, the sky seems to be the limit for Justify. Backers haven’t just purchased Kentucky Derby futures, they’re betting on a Triple Crown winner. He’s been that good. But I can’t escape the feeling his path has been neatly wrapped in a bow so far and Justify’s inexperience could prove costly over a demanding 1 ¼-mile trip where everything doesn’t come easy.
With the rest of the field never a factor, Bolt d’Oro was forced to go after Justify on the far turn and got close before being readily dismissed in the stretch. He hasn’t distinguished himself but performed admirably in both starts this year, taking the San Felipe (G2) via disqualification a month earlier, and the Medaglia d’Oro colt received a career-best 110 BRIS Speed rating in his final prep.
Trainer and co-owner Mick Ruis is looking forward to a better set-up in the Kentucky Derby and Bolt d’Oro merits respect; the multiple Grade 1 winner could be building toward an optimal performance and will bring a strong set of Late Pace numbers (100-104-102-114) to the equation. He exited the race with a bloodied foot and lost jockey Javier Castellano to Audible in recent days, but Bolt d’Oro will add the services of three-time Kentucky Derby winner Victor Espinoza and the athletic sophomore is eligible to make a favorable impression in his morning exercises at Churchill Downs.
Depending on what Magnum Moon does in the Arkansas Derby, Bolt d’Oro appears poised to be either the third or fourth choice in Kentucky Derby wagering.
Vino Rosso received a favorable set-up for his late kick in the Wood Memorial as a runaway speedball established a heady pace. He came flying into contention by the conclusion of the far turn but the Pletcher pupil didn’t maintain a straight path after wheeling into the stretch, angling in and repeatedly bumping Enticed before gaining the upper hand in the final sixteenth a mile. Stewards took a long look before allowing the result to stand.
The contact didn’t affect the final outcome and Vino Rosso needed the confidence-building win. He’s always been well-regarded, posting a sharp debut win at Aqueduct last November and capturing a two-turn allowance at Tampa Bay Downs at 1-9 odds in his second start, but didn’t perform to expectations in his first two stakes attempts. The chestnut colt lost ground on the far turn of the Sam F. Davis (G3) before rallying belatedly for third and never fired finishing fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).
Vino Rosso turned things around nicely at Aqueduct and John Velazquez will stick with the up-and-coming colt. His BRIS Speed and Late Pace numbers are solid and as mentioned previously, Vino Rosso is a candidate to come rallying into the frame of the Kentucky Derby.
Enticed was a little softened up after stalking the hot pace in second but held well for the place, 2 ¼ lengths clear of third. The well-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro may appreciate returning to Churchill Downs, site of his game win in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in his juvenile finale, but his lack of a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating from a pair of route starts this year has me concerned (he’s run faster around one-turn).
Good Magic launched a bold move on the far turn and appeared on his way to a big win when striking the front in upper stretch of the Blue Grass at Keeneland. But after reaching the eighth pole with a 1 ½-length advantage, he didn’t continue to draw away from pacesetter Flameaway, who kept plugging along through the stretch to finish a clear second.
My reaction was mixed afterward. So much was expected from Good Magic after he displayed awesome push-button acceleration breaking his maiden in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he was far from a developed product entering his 3-year-old season and not up to the task returning from a lengthy layoff in the Fountain of Youth (G2) in early March. The Blue Grass represented the first positive step toward reaching his peak at age 3 and as we witnessed last fall following a runner-up effort to Firenze Fire in the Champagne (G1), Good Magic has shown the ability to take a significant step forward off an encouraging performance.
His tactical speed may provide a good stalking trip but the Kentucky Derby will be a difficult proposition given his lower Speed ratings this season and the added ground. Good Magic’s 96 Speed figure from the Champagne stacked up better last fall and the Juvenile came at a 1 1/16-mile distance that fit perfectly within his wheelhouse. His Blue Grass effort didn’t instill me with confidence surrounding his chances at 1 ¼ miles.
Flameaway promises to be overlooked at long odds following runner-up efforts in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass, but he’ll find a place underneath in my exotic tickets. A son of Scat Daddy, the Mark Casse-trained colt reminds me of Battle of Midway, a hard-trying colt with speed and perceived distance limitations who never finished out of the money and wound up third in last year’s Kentucky Derby at 40-1.
Flameaway has laid his body down in all four starts this year, battling determinedly to the wire, and didn’t lose ground in the stretch of any. He’s the type who could be in the right spot to outfinish other tiring rivals for a minor award.
Magnum Moon posted a smashing 3 ½-length win in the March 17 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park and has the opportunity to offer another salvo in the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Unraced at age 2, the Malibu Moon colt notched a 100 BRIS Speed rating improving his record to 3-for-3 last time and an impressive performance Saturday will put him in the conversation with Justify and Mendelssohn as a top contender.
Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip will show speed in the nine-horse field and we’ll see whether Combatant, who has put himself in position but lacked the necessary finishing kick placing in his last four stakes attempts, can take a necessary step forward for Steve Asmussen. Asmussen also has as part of a three-pronged attack Tenfold, who is making his stakes debut after opening his career with maiden and allowance wins; and Dream Baby Dream, who will provide insight upon Runaway Ghost after a runner-up finish in the Sunland Derby (G3).
Solomini doesn’t have to win, but he was never a threat getting up in the final strides for second in the Rebel and I need to see an improved showing to have any faith in his Kentucky Derby chances.
I will be surprised if Magnum Moon doesn’t prove best and hope to see him put on a show.
The Lexington Stakes (G3) represents an important test for My Bob Jack, who probably needs a top two finish after a third in the Louisiana Derby (G2). The Southwest (G3) winner currently ranks 20th on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 32 points and the 1 1/16-mile Lexington is worth a total of 34 points (20-8-4-2 scale). The late runner will have to overcome the widest post among 12 rivals.
Greyvitos, who is unraced since winning the Springboard Mile at Remington Park in mid-December, returns for Adam Kitchingman in the Lexington and will be a prominent presence from the start with Joel Rosario.
Telekinesis wound up dueling on the lead while stepping up to face allowance rivals last time and weakened late in his first two-turn start. I liked his debut two starts back and anticipate a better stalking trip this time for the Casse-trained Ghostzapper colt, who has posted solid BRIS Speed numbers (92-93).
Kentucky Derby Top 20
- MENDELSSOHN: Signaled dirt readiness in U.A.E. Derby
- JUSTIFY: Intimidating presence will be forwardly-placed
- BOLT D’ORO: Seeks to prosper from better set-up
- AUDIBLE: Strong turn of foot in Florida Derby win
- MAGNUM MOON: Can enhance standing in Arkansas Derby
- VINO ROSSO: Won’t be surprised to see him rolling on far turn
- GOOD MAGIC: Rebounded in Blue Grass; another step forward at CD?
- SOLOMINI: Arkansas Derby key for Rebel runner-up
- MY BOY JACK: Late runner makes final prep in Lexington
- ENTICED: Could benefit from rough-trip second in Wood
- FLAMEAWAY: Hard-trying colt has exotics appeal
- NOBLE INDY: Louisiana Derby hero will be forwardly placed
- HOFBURG: Florida Derby runner-up lightly-raced but intriguing
- COMBATANT: Needs third in Arkansas Derby to qualify
- QUIP: Arkansas Derby next for Tampa Bay Derby winner
- LONE SAILOR: Showed improved late kick in Louisiana Derby second
- RUNAWAY GHOST: Sunland Derby winner facing class check
- GRONKOWSKI: Euro invader exiting pair of one-mile Polytrack wins
- PROMISES FULFILLED: Speedball retreated to last in Florida Derby
- BRAVAZO: Up the track in Louisiana Derby