A strong six-furlong move in 1:13 1/5 by Justify April 2 at Santa Anita Park proved enough for trainer Bob Baffert to fully commit to having the son of Scat Daddy make his stakes debut in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 7.
"We'll run here," Baffert said Monday at Santa Anita. "He went nice and it looked like he handled it pretty well. As long as he comes out of it well, he runs."
After Justify rolled to a 6 1/2-length victory in an allowance-optional claiming race March 11 at Santa Anita to stay perfect in two starts, Baffert had decided to point him to the Arkansas Derby (G1) April 14 at Oaklawn Park. As part of that plan, Baffert was pointing stablemate McKinzie to the Santa Anita Derby.
But because of an issue in one of his hind legs, McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby. With that change, Baffert opted to keep the lightly raced Justify in Southern California for his stakes debut.
Justify, who came on the track Monday with jockey Drayden Van Dyke at about 7:45 a.m., cantered by the grandstand along with grade 1 stablemate Hoppertunity. With a stable pony accompanying the pair, Hoppertunity broke off first approaching the five-furlong pole, with Justify 1 1/4 lengths back.
Under a long hold from Van Dyke, Justify had a length-and-a-half to make up a sixteenth of a mile from the wire, got on terms a jump or two past the finish line and in a powerful display, motored well clear around the clubhouse turn as Van Dyke stood up at the seven-furlong pole. Private clocker Andy Harrington had Justify in five furlongs in 1:01, and in his run out, six furlongs in 1:13 and seven in 1:27 2/5.
"He did it with aplomb," Harrington said. "He does everything they ask, and he does it effortlessly. He's like a big kid who's just learning how to run ... There's really no-telling how good he is."
Monday's move marked Justify's third recorded work since his rousing mile win March 11 and follows a five-furlong move of :59 3/5 March 26 (second-best of 118 at the distance).
Baffert, who has won a record seven Santa Anita Derbies, beginning with Cavonnier in 1996 and most recently with Dortmund in 2015, could have an additional entrant for Saturday, but he said that part of the equation is as-yet undetermined.
"It looks like Solomini (most recently second in the grade 2 Rebel Stakes March 17) is going to run in the Arkansas Derby," Baffert said. "I've got (impressive maiden winner) Restoring Hope. ... I don't know what I'm gonna do with him."