Justify and Mike Smith win the Kentucky Derby May 5 at Churchill Downs

Justify and Mike Smith win the Kentucky Derby May 5 at Churchill Downs

Skip Dickstein

Justify Conquers 'Curse of Apollo' in Kentucky Derby

Scat Daddy colt engaged in a brutally hot pace and held off all challengers.

He comes from a barn used to doing great things. Not just great things, but feats of strength capable of breaking down barriers thought to be rusted shut or reserved for those with transcendent ability.

His predecessors include—to a name a couple—the gentle bay beast who took a 37-year drought in the classics and ended it with ease and a steel gray wunderkind who earned the biggest, richest prizes in the sport. These were deep and wide shoes to fill, ones most trainers wouldn't dare ask an inexperienced baby to even try on. Yet in the weeks leading up to the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), trainer Bob Baffert used the same descriptors with Justify as he had with American Pharoah  and Arrogate .

The adjectives were the same—superior, exceptional—inspired by a three-race sample size as brilliant as it was small. While Baffert said he wasn't concerned Justify would attempt a task on Saturday that hadn't been achieved in 136 years, he did acknowledge the son of Scat Daddy would have to be everything he thought he was and then some to overcome an assembly of fellow 3-year-olds as competitive as any his Hall of Fame eyes had seen.

"I was fretting all week trying to get this big horse there," Baffert said of Justify, who gave him his fifth triumph in the first leg of the Triple Crown. "It's like having (NBA star) LeBron James. You better win a championship with him."

Through every point of call of the 1 1/4-mile classic at Churchill Downs, Justify did his billing more than justice. He chased the expected pacesetter through lethal fractions. He had the reigning juvenile champion come at him at the head of the lane and show him the depths of his class. He did it all over a rain-soaked, sloppy (sealed) surface that has undone many with far more seasoning.

He emerged triumphant, kicking history in the teeth along the way.

The so-called "Curse of Apollo" can now take a seat next to those who believed they would never see a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. In an effort Baffert called "the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance I've brought up here," the big red prodigy turned back gallant 2-year-old male champion Good Magic in the stretch to win the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths. He became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to capture the 10-furlong classic without having raced as a juvenile.

"He just put himself up there with the greats," exclaimed Baffert, who knows a thing or two about all-timers, having had 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and champion Arrogate, racing's all-time richest racehorse, emerge from his barn. "It takes a horse, you know, like American Pharoah. We knew he was capable. He showed me that—we were talking about it—but I didn't want to say it. I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today."

It takes some kind of special for a horse to even earn the opportunity Justify afforded himself before a crowd of 157,813, the eighth-largest attendance in Kentucky Derby history.

The big-bodied but supremely athletic colt had his connections buzzing from the time he started getting serious on the work tab during the winter. Justify needed time to grow into his impressive frame, but Baffert nonetheless started concocting a plan to get him to the first weekend in May.

"This colt was really special as a yearling," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, which owns Justify in partnership with China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners. "Like Bob said, he's kind of like LeBron. And I got excited when Bob told me that he was going to run him, that he had a plan to get to the Derby. I said, 'Bob, don't rush this horse.'"

When Justify finally debuted at Santa Anita Park going seven furlongs Feb. 18, he emboldened his connections' instincts when he cantered to a 9 1/2-length victory. Instead of going right into stakes company, Baffert gave his young charge another bit of seasoning in a one-mile optional-claiming allowance test March 11, where the track—fortunately, as hindsight reveals—came up muddy during his equally sublime 6 1/2-length rout that day.

Even with a pack of standout sophomores touting themselves across the country, the buzz on Justify was such that he was made the favorite for his first graded stakes, a showdown with multiple grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1). That test marked the second time Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was aboard the chestnut runner, and after Justify relaxed on the front end, then put Bolt d'Oro in his place en route to a three-length victory, the man who piloted Arrogate, Zenyatta, and countless other greats was effusive about what lay ahead four weeks later.

"I mean, this horse, I just keep using (these words), but he's so above average, it's unbelievable," Smith said after his second Kentucky Derby victory, to go along with his 2005 upset aboard Giacomo. "When Bob picked this one out, he told me, 'You are going to ride him the next time.' I have been losing sleep ever since, but in a good way. I have been so excited just dreaming about this horse.

"What happened today is what I have been daydreaming about all afternoon. I just knew he was capable of this. ... My job was just to get him out of there. And I did that part, and I figured the rest is up to him. He's just an amazing horse. I have never been on a 3-year-old like this."

One of Baffert's default lines is to always stress how key the break is. Leaving out of post 7 in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, 5-2 favorite Justify and Smith got away in picture-perfect fashion over the wet going, matched strides with Good Magic just to his inside past the stands for the first time and settled into second to the outside of pacesetter Promises Fulfilled through a wicked opening quarter-mile in :22.24.

He stayed at the longshot's hip down the backstretch through a taxing half-mile in :45.77, with Bolt d'Oro just behind him in fourth and Good Magic rating between that one and Flameaway on the rail.

"After that (half-mile) I was like, 'Wow, man, this poor little horse,'" Baffert said. "I thought, 'He's going to lay down. There's no way. He's going to lay down.'"

While his connections looked at angst-inducing fractions, Smith took his cues from the handy specimen beneath him, and Justify was going along like those air-sucking fractions were routine.

"That (pace) actually comes very comfortable to him," Smith said. "I was actually slowing it down. Although we went in :45, 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.

"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."

As they made their way around the far turn and reality hit for Promises Fulfilled, Justify took command and opened up about a length as Bolt d'Oro briefly tried to mount a challenge. By the head of the lane, however, Good Magic was rolling on the outside as the only major threat to the Adonis in front of him, which gave his trainer Chad Brown a momentary stomach flip that his first Derby win was on the horizon.

"I'm very proud of him. He attended a very fast pace. We knew going in that Justify looked like a big monster, and we didn't want to be too far away," Brown said of Good Magic. "The winner did all the work up front, and my horse was attending close to a very fast pace and was still second. Those two horses showed they were the two best horses in the race.

"I certainly felt in deep stretch we had a really good chance to get there. Given the fractions up front, and that Justify was doing a lot of the heavy lifting up front, I felt by the eighth pole maybe this horse would come back to us, and maybe he's not a super horse. But he found more, and he is a super horse."

The same ability that earned Good Magic the victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) in November kept him in the fight until deep stretch Saturday, but Justify was too much for even the elite of his classmates to handle, as he crossed the wire in 2:04.20.

Good Magic held off fellow grade 1 winner Audible by a head for second, with 85-1 longshot Instilled Regard putting in a top effort to get fourth and My Boy Jack running on the far outside under Kent Desormeaux to round out the top five.

"I had a perfect trip. That's why I was looking forward to today, because I knew there was a lot of speed," said Javier Castellano, who rode Audible. "He was the only horse that came from behind. I was proud the way he did it. He finished good. I'm satisfied (with) the way he did it."

Bolt d'Oro and Flameaway both faded after racing near the quick pace to finish 12th and 13th, respectively. Grade 1 winner Magnum Moon, who came into the Derby unbeaten in four starts, never fired and was 19th, with fellow grade 1 winner Mendelssohn last after being bumped hard in the early going.

"He just got knocked over coming out of the gate, and then he got knocked over again going into the first bend, but he'll be fine," said Aidan O'Brien, trainer of Mendelssohn. "He was never used to getting that much kickback. It's a totally different experience, you know, so we'll be fine. We'll take him home and give him a break and come back (for the grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic)."

Bred in Kentucky by John Gunther, Justify is out of the Ghostzapper  mare Stage Magic and was purchased by China Horse Club and Maverick Racing for $500,000 out of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale. In addition to busting Apollo's doors down, he also gave co-owner Sol Kumin of Head of Plains Partners the distinction of becoming the first owner since Calumet in 1952 to own the winners of both the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Kumin co-owns Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) heroine Monomoy Girl.

"Unbelievable, just unbelievable," Kumin said of Justify. "He was everything Baffert said he was."

Added Baffert, "It's one of these things—just enjoy the moment. That's the way I feel about it right now. Just enjoy it, because I'm just very fortunate to have a horse like this. It hasn't really sunk in yet."

Video: Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)