LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There was a reason crowds of people followed Justify wherever he went in the week leading up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby.
Spectators craned their necks to get a look whenever the massive chestnut colt was on the track. Fifty people lined up just to watch him get a bath in the morning, clicking away rapidly with their cameras. Justify, perhaps used to the attention by now, seemed bored with the whole affair.
Now that the unbeaten colt can officially add “Kentucky Derby winner” to his résumé, it’s clear why people were so intrigued. He’s a bona fide superstar.
“I have never been on a 3-year-old like this,” said 52-year-old jockey Mike Smith, a Hall of Famer who has ridden his share of good 3-year-old horses.
Justify’s performance might bring back memories of American Pharoah, who swept the Triple Crown in 2015, the same year the younger colt was born. American Pharoah broke a 37-year drought in the series, accomplishing a feat some thought wasn’t possible in this day and age.
Bob Baffert trained American Pharoah, as well as Silver Charm and Real Quiet, who just missed winning the Triple Crown themselves. With Baffert himself throwing out comparisons to American Pharoah, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that the 13th Triple Crown winner could come from the same barn.
“I was just in awe of the performance,” Baffert said after Saturday’s Derby. “That’s the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I’ve brought up here. And so, I mean, he just did it. He just put himself up there with the greats. It takes a horse, you know, like American Pharoah. We knew he was capable. … 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.”
Justify certainly had to work harder than American Pharoah did in his Kentucky Derby victory. A consistent downpour had turned the track into a muddy soup, but that didn’t stop Justify from sweeping to the front and sitting just off pacesetter Promises Fufilled.
Justify pressed an astonishingly fast pace for the first mile. But as the leader faded, Justify kept gutting it out for the entire 1¼-mile distance, gamely holding off 2017 2-year-old champion Good Magic for the victory.
“He’s a fast horse,” Baffert said later of Promises Fufilled. “But he’s never seen a horse — never been next to a horse like that. When you have these horses like that, they’re like humans. They take over. They know they’re in over their head. This horse is just … I’ve said it over and over, he’s a superior horse. I mean, Arrogate, American Pharoah, they are superior horses.”
It was easy to say such things after the race was over, but even Baffert admitted he was starting to doubt when he saw just how fast the leaders were going. It brought back memories of the 2012 Kentucky Derby, when Smith took Bodemeister to the front in what was one of the fastest paces in Derby history.
Bodemeister led almost wire to wire before I’ll Have Another swept in and got the better of him at the finish line.
“All right, Mike. You did it to me again,” Baffert said he was thinking as he watched the race and waited for Justify to inevitably give up and back down. Horses just don’t run fractions like that in the Kentucky Derby and still win, and Baffert knew it.
As those thoughts were running through his mind, the horse only dug in harder.
“I was like, wow, man, this poor little horse,” Baffert said. “He’s going to lay down. There’s no way. He’s going to lay down. All this — been fretting all week trying to get this big horse there. It’s like having LeBron James on your team. You better win a championship with him. That’s the way we feel.”
But Smith never doubted. He knew Justify wasn’t bothered by the rain, the mud or the pace. Smith said he knew Justify was something special, and Saturday just proved it to the masses.
“He does things that are very easy. That actually comes very comfortable to him. I was actually slowing it down,” Smith said. “Although we went in 45 [seconds], I was — I was leaning back on him probably more than I normally would just because Bolt d’Oro came outside and kind of pushed him along a bit. He’s so athletic. He gets over the ground so easy. He is able to keep running. It takes a lot to try to keep up with him. And you got to try to run him down after that. You got to let a fast horse be fast sometimes.”
So far Justify has checked every box. The strapping colt, who stands at 16.3 hands (bigger than American Pharoah), didn’t race when he was 2. WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden — who owns Justify in a partnership with the China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners — sensed he had something special after they purchased the colt as a yearling for $500,000. He asked Baffert to take his time with him.
Taking one’s time is simple to say but tough to do if the Derby is the goal. Before Justify defeated Good Magic by 2½ lengths Saturday, the last Derby winner that had not raced as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882. Entry into the Kentucky Derby is based on a points system, which essentially meant that Justify had one shot to get onto the board. One setback would probably put him off the Derby trail.
But even that seemed to go smoothly. Justify broke his maiden in February, won an allowance race in March, then took a shot at the Santa Anita Derby in April, winning that race over Bolt d’Oro to score the needed points to get into the Derby starting gate in May.
Perhaps the hardest part of Justify’s journey was actually getting him into the starting gate. Once they got the lead in the Kentucky Derby, Smith knew it was over.
“He wasn’t going to let nobody by him,” Smith said. “Audible actually was running a little bit down there on the rail, was running late. I certainly could have kept my foot on the gas a little longer if I wanted to, and he would have stayed in front a whole lot further.”
And now all signs point to the Preakness, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, in two weeks. And after that, who knows? With a horse like this, Triple Crown dreams are never far away.
“You know how I feel about his ability,” Smith said. “I mean, given the opportunity, there’s no telling what this horse can do.”