June 28, 2022

Justify’s first winner: Tahoma looks sharp in Santa Anita debut

Tahoma rolls in his debut at Santa Anita to become the first winner sired by Justify (Photo by Benoit Photo)

Triple Crown champion Justify got off the mark as a sire on Sunday at Santa Anita, the track that launched his meteoric racing career. The Doug O’Neill-trained Tahoma drove to a two-length victory in the second race, justifying 9-10 favoritism as Justify’s first U.S. runner.

A flashy chestnut like his freshman sire, Tahoma readily chased the pace four wide. The juvenile was fourth, but only a length back, through an opening quarter in :22.21. Tahoma then readily asserted down the lane, despite covering more ground. Under Juan Hernandez, the West Coast Stables colt forged 1 1/2 lengths clear at the half-mile mark in :47.01 and completed 4 1/2 furlongs in :53.89.

A pair of longshots followed him home in the maiden special weight featuring all first-time starters. The 24-1 Salta stayed on for second by 2 1/4 lengths from the slow-starting Eagles Landing, who closed from last in the eight-horse field.

Tahoma opened his account with a $40,200 deposit. He was obviously well regarded to go off as the odds-on choice in his unveiling, a reputation publicized by his half-mile bullet from the gate in :47 on May 16.

While O’Neill was still en route from Maryland, where he sent out Happy Jack to an eighth-place finish in Saturday’s Preakness (G1), assistant Leandro Mora was holding down the fort.

“We had high expectations and we feel this colt has a lot of upside,” Mora said. “We train these babies pretty much like Brian Mayberry used to when I worked for him 30 years ago. 

“We do not over-train a horse for these type of races. This colt has a lot of ability and I feel really confident about his future. We’re proud to win with the very first (U.S.) starter for Justify, very proud.”

Tahoma’s debut came several hours after Justify’s first overall runner, Aspen Grove, at the Curragh. Trained by Fozzy Stack, the Craig Bernick homebred was a promising fifth in a fillies’ maiden. As the opener on Irish 1000 Guineas Day, the six-furlong event is likely to be a productive source of future winners.

Tahoma was bred in Kentucky by Hunter Valley Farm, Fergus Galvin, and Golden Vale Farm. His dam, the Rahy mare Madera Dancer, is also responsible for Grade 3 winner Legends of War, who placed in the Gimcrack (G2) as a juvenile. Tahoma is his three-quarter brother, since Legends of War is by Justify’s sire, Scat Daddy.

O’Neill’s brother Dennis purchased Tahoma for $160,000 as a Keeneland September yearling.

“Dennis bought this horse, and he has the eye of an eagle,” Mora added. “He provides us with so many nice horses.”

Those nice horses include both of Doug O’Neill’s Kentucky Derby (G1) champions, I’ll Have Another (2012) and Nyquist (2016). I’ll Have Another added the Preakness, only to be denied his chance at the Triple Crown when retired due to injury on the eve of the Belmont (G1). Nyquist made history as just the second to turn the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1)/Derby double, following Street Sense (2007).

Justify rewrote the record book by becoming the first unraced juvenile to go on and sweep the Triple Crown at three. In a compressed time frame in the spring of 2018, the blaze-faced chestnut famously compiled a 6-for-6 mark to emulate Seattle Slew’s feat of remaining perfect through the classics. Unfortunately, Justify was then retired with an ankle issue. Yet he had done enough to reign as both champion three-year-old male and Horse of the Year.

Considering the arc of his own career, it’s an encouraging sign that Justify has already had a sharp debut winner. But his sire line is replete with high-class two-year-olds. The aforementioned Scat Daddy won the 2006 Champagne (G1) and Sanford (G2), then progressed to take the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby (G1).

Scat Daddy was by transatlantic champion Johannesburg, who jetted in to win the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Johannesburg’s sire, Hennessy, and paternal grandsire, Storm Cat, were both narrowly denied in their respective attempts at the Juvenile. Storm Cat was himself by the brilliant Storm Bird, the 1980 champion two-year-old colt in both England and Ireland.

Justify was bred by John Gunther and raised at his and daughter Tanya Gunther’s Glennwood Farm. His dam, the Grade 3-placed Stage Magic by Hall of Famer Ghostzapper, was honored as Broodmare of the Year.

Standing at Coolmore’s North American arm, Ashford Stud in the Bluegrass, Justify commands a fee of $100,000, on a live foal/stands and nurses basis. The seven-year-old shuttles to Coolmore Australia for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season, so more first-crop juveniles will be on the way Down Under later this year.