Just How Good is Kentucky Derby Winner Justify?

Ever since Justify crossed the wire first in the 144th Kentucky Derby, the debate has raged on social media: Exactly how good is the son of Scat Daddy?

According to some, he is the best horse to look through a bridle since Secretariat (we’ve never heard that before, have we?). To others, even if he wins the Preakness Stakes (the second jewel of the Triple Crown), Justify is sure to flunk The Test of the Champion, given how slowly he came home in the Bluegrass State.

Early betting suggests the Bob Baffert trainee has a pretty good shot of becoming the second Triple Crown winner in four years following a 37-year draught. US Racing puts his odds of winning both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes at 3-2 (+150), while other sites are slightly more optimistic, with the average price standing at 7-5 (+140).

But the question still remains: Just how talented is the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner? Will be prove to be the next American Pharoah or just another nice horse?

The answer is more complicated than it appears.

Pros 

Let’s start with the positives. Justify’s early speed ration (my own rating of early energy disbursement relative to overall speed) in the Kentucky Derby was the lowest (fastest) in history!

You read that right. In 143 previous editions of the Run for the Roses, no horse has ever expended as much energy in the early going as Justify did on May 5, 2018.

And get this: Among the eight Kentucky Derby winners to record an ESR of -12 or better since 1896, three went on to compete in the Preakness Stake — and all three won it, along with the Belmont Stakes, to capture the Triple Crown!

Kentucky-Derby-Top-ESRs

Another factor in Justify’s favor is the 102 Brisnet Speed Figure he earned in his Derby romp. Why is a speed figure that ranks as the 17th lowest over the past 20 years a good thing, you ask? Because I think Brisnet (and other figure-makers) got it wrong.

Even today, with superior track drainage and maintenance, it can be very tricky to gauge the condition of a dirt surface deluged by rain. Remember American Pharoah’s sloppy score in the Preakness Stakes on May 16, 2015? That race gave figure-makers fits and is eerily similar to this year’s Run for the Roses.

Like Justify, American Pharoah recorded a sizzling ESR that day (-14) and earned a 100 Brisnet Speed Figure, despite winning by seven lengths. Two weeks earlier, Pharoah had garnered exactly the same BSF following a wide trip and a much narrower score in the Kentucky Derby.

Hence, it was hardly surprising to me when the son of Pioneerof The Nile clocked the fastest Belmont since Point Given (in 2001) and earned a 109 Brisnet Speed Figure to sweep the Triple Crown.

AmericanPharoah

Negatives

Justify’s -8.09 late speed ration (my own rating of late energy disbursement relative to overall speed) on the first Saturday in May is one of the worst for a Derby winner in history, although it ranks just below the -7.99 LSR recorded by the aforementioned American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and just above the -9.25 LSR recorded by Citation in the 1948 Derby — and both of those colts went on to Triple Crown glory.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Justify is one of the most inexperienced Derby champions of all time. Yes, he broke the longstanding Curse of Apollo, but will he be able to maintain his form and become just the second undefeated Triple Crown champ since Seattle Slew?

That remains to be seen.

Speed Rations Explained

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.
Posted on
{include file='scripts-footer.tpl'}