For such a highly regarded Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite, WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing’s Justify sure had a lot of people asking a lot of questions about whether he was up to the task. Was he too lightly raced? Would the Curse of Apollo defeat him? Would he ship successfully? Could he get the distance?
And seemingly without even taking a deep breath, the flashy chestnut son of Scat Daddy answered them all and then some, adding an exclamation point for good measure with his impressive victory by 2 ½ lengths in the 144th running of the storied race held Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Under his regular pilot, Hall of Famer Mike Smith, the Bob Baffert-trained colt beat a talented field of 19 other sophomores, some call the best assembled under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs in years.
“He just put himself up there with the greats,” Baffert said. “It takes a horse, you know, like American Pharoah. We knew he was capable. He showed me that — we were talking about — I didn’t want to say it. Hey, I don’t want to jinx myself, but we knew; I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today.
“The curse thing really didn’t bother me. I was just worried about us, just make sure we did everything right. We shipped right. Jimmy Barnes, all my team, the gallop boys… everybody was in sync. Everybody stayed focused. We have been lucky enough to have these good horses.”
As the Kentucky rains began to fall harder and the main track grew soupier, the field was sprung from the gate and it was no surprise that Smith allowed Justify to head to the lead. Promises Fulfilled also sped to the front after the rival to his inside, Free Drop Billy, hesitated at the break every so slightly. The highly regarded Mendelssohn also broke poorly from his post position of 14 and was squeezed hard and forced inward by Instilled Regard on his outside, who was actually pushed in by Magnum Moon.
By the time the field passed the wire for the first time, Promises Fulfilled was leading the way through a heated three-quarters of a mile in fractions of :22.24, :45.77 and 1:11.01 while closest to the rail with Justify to his outside, stalking. Despite the hot early pace, Smith and Justify grew tired of waiting and, as they raced up the backstretch, took command. It was clear around the far turn that the race for the win was likely over, though Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic made a good run at the quarter pole.
Justify was more than a length in front of the field behind him and passed a mile in 1:37.35. Under Smith’s patented left-handed whip, he gradually drew away for the win, stopping the clock in 2:04.20 on a main track that was sealed, but sloppy.
Audible rallied well from about mid-pack to earn third, finishing a head behind the runner-up, while Instilled Regard charged from near the back of the pack after three-quarters of a mile to finish 1 ¾ lengths behind Audible at odds of 85-1.
“Going in, my main concern was really just getting him out of the gate,” Smith said. “Because — believe it or not — I mean, he’s just so talented. I mean, this horse … he’s so above average, it’s unbelievable. He has a mind to go with it. I knew if I could get him out of there and get him into a big rhythm, he can go fast. That’s how good he is. He can go at :45 and still finish like he did was incredible.
“Once we jumped out well, by no means I thought I had it won — just a sigh of relief. I was like, ‘You do it from here.’ I just, basically stayed out of the way and kept a leg on each side and my mind in the middle. Although I knew we were running along pretty good, Bolt d’Oro come to my outside about the wire and pushed me along a little bit. I looked underneath my arms a couple of times, and the rest of them were right behind me. I figured if I was going fast, they were going fast with me.
“Again, when I called on him heading for home, once he switched over to his right lead, he dug back in. And he could have gone around again. He wasn’t going to let them by.”
Justify became the sixth consecutive favorite to win the Run for the Roses and was good for $7.80, $6 and $4.40 at odds of just under 3-1. Champion Good Magic, who was ridden by Jose Ortiz, returned $9.20 and $6.60 at nearly 10-1, while of Audible paid $5.80 at 7-1 under Javier Castellano. The $2 exacta was worth $69.60, the 50-cent trifecta returned $70.70 and the $1 superfecta $19,618.20.
My Boy Jack, Bravazo, Hofburg, Lone Sailor, Vino Rosso, Solomini, Firenze Fire, Bolt d’Oro, Flameaway, Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Free Drop Billy, Noble Indy, Combatant, Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn rounded out the order of finish.
Justify, who was bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther, is from the second-to-last crop from standout sire Scat Daddy and was purchased for $500,000 by the partnership of China Horse Club and Maverick Racing. WinStar, Head of Plains and Starlight bought in even before the colt made his debut in February. He is now undefeated in four career starts, including the Santa Anita Derby (GI), and easily obliterated the “Curse of Apollo.” He now has earned $2,098,000.
“We have a plaque in the office that says, ‘Proverbs 21:31. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.’ That’s what we live every day for,” WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden Said. “The Troutts [WinStar owners] are believers in Jesus Christ. And we are, too. And it’s just great to share that with them. It’s not why we won, because we get beat plenty. But it’s just really an opportunity for us as a family to, you know, share the blessings that God has given us.
“You know, this is a great ownership group: Mr. Teo and the China Horse Club and SF Bloodstock, who is also involved with all our 3‑year‑olds. They just came to us two years ago. And we put together a partnership to try to buy some 3‑year‑old colts, yearling colts at the time. And it gave us more opportunity to spread out and give us — typically, we would put 20 colts in training for this opportunity to try to get here each year — and it gave us an opportunity to put 30 with the extra resources.
“This colt was really special as a yearling. I have been asked about how we bought him a lot. He just stood out. Like Bob said, he’s kind of like Lebron. And I got excited when Bob told me that he was going to run him and he had a plan to get to the Derby. I said, ‘Now, Bob, don’t rush this horse.’ This is before he ever ran. Do you remember that, Bob? So he hadn’t even run yet. It was kind of the day before he ran his first race. And he had already kind of picked out his second race, which was an allowance race at Santa Anita. And I don’t know how he got that to go. But it went with five‑horse field.”
Justify is likely to start next in the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, at Pimlico Race Course on May 19.