February 28, 2021

Justify stars in Derby; Baffert barn provides edge for Preakness

Justify sails over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 5, 2018, to capture the 144th Kentucky Derby (G1) with jockey Mike Smith aboard (c) Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

Justify proved his superiority winning the Kentucky Derby by a 2 ½-length margin and will head to Baltimore as an odds-on favorite for the second jewel of the American Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on May 19. The mighty chestnut has the right connections in six-time Preakness winner Bob Baffert.

No trainer in the sport negates the possibility of a “bounce” or regression like Baffert and the white-haired Hall of Famer is clearly the best in the game when it comes to the two-week turnaround at Pimlico, bringing all four previous Kentucky Derby winners back in peak form (American Pharoah, War Emblem, Real Quiet and Silver Charm). He also orchestrated a Preakness turnaround for Lookin at Lucky and Point Given after disappointing sixth-place efforts at Churchill Downs.

The barn enhances the confidence level surrounding Justify, who will need to take a significant step back for the competition to have any chance.

He made it look easy at Churchill Downs, becoming the first unraced 2-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby in 136 years. The son of the late sire Scat Daddy didn’t arrive on the racing scene until 76 days earlier, romping in his February 18 career debut at Santa Anita, and has now won four straight in convincing fashion.

Off as the 5-2 favorite, Justify stylishly overcame any inexperience concerns by acing the start in a 20-horse field and settling into a forward spot behind pacesetter Promises Fulfilled. The pace was hot but the massive colt was always traveling comfortably beneath Mike Smith. When Justify seized the advantage and began to draw away on the far turn, the outcome appeared a foregone conclusion.

Good Magic was primed for his best and kudos to Jose Ortiz (the best young jockey in Thoroughbred racing) for making a run at the clear leader nearing the conclusion of the far turn. Justify had more in reserve and turned back the challenge while straightening for home, driving through the stretch with his enormous strides, but Good Magic dug in courageously to hold second by a head over the late-running Audible.

The runner-up and third-placer were probably good enough to win recent editions of the Kentucky Derby and flattered the winner in defeat.

Blue Grass (G2) winner Good Magic stepped up in the third start off the layoff as backers expected. The 2-year-old champion had the misfortune of facing an up-and-coming superstar, but the Chad Brown-trained Curlin colt made a run at Justify and never quit trying in the latter stages. Good Magic left the starting gate as the 9-1 fifth choice and he’s the only challenger of note under consideration for the Preakness.

Florida Derby (G1) winner Audible raced off the pace in midpack and the 7-1 fourth choice appeared stuck in neutral before being angled toward the inside midway on the far turn, offering an eye-catching rally up the rail in the final three-eighths of a mile. The mud-caked son of Into Mischief just missed runner-up honors while finishing full of run under the wire and Audible (who shares ownership with Justify) stamped himself as a viable Belmont Stakes contender if he returns five weeks later for Todd Pletcher.

It was a couple of lengths back to Instilled Regard, who improved upon a pair of unplaced setbacks with a rallying fourth at 85-1. Next came My Boy Jack, the surprising 6-1 second choice who trailed the entire field in last after the opening three-quarters of a mile and traveled extremely wide into the stretch while closing belatedly for fifth.

Anticipation ran high for the 2018 Kentucky Derby due to the perceived depth and quality of the field and while the ultimate proof will come down the road, the outcome did not change my perception. Wet conditions were unfortunate but form held over the sloppy oval, with Justify meeting lofty expectations and top-class rivals Good Magic and Audible easily grabbing the minor awards.

The crème rose to top Saturday and I’m still keen on the talent behind the top three, with vanquished rivals Hofburg (8th), Vino Rosso (10th), Bolt d’Oro (12th), Enticed (14th), Noble Indy (17th), Magnum Moon (19th) and Mendelssohn (20th) all eligible to make a major impact in big races down the road if they stay healthy.

Justify proved to be a spectacular winner and I left Churchill Downs excited about the possibility of a Triple Crown bid in the June 9 Belmont Stakes. Given the colt’s extreme talent and Baffert’s Preakness expertise, Justify appears poised to keep captivating audiences two weeks later.