Two years ago, China Horse Club entered into a partnership with WinStar Farm to buy yearling colts, with the ultimate goal of winning top races at age 3.
Among those first-year purchases was a striking son of then-up-and-coming Ashford Stud stallion Scat Daddy named Justify, who was purchased for $500,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale and sent to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Those decisions proved fortuitous May 5 when Justify posted a gutsy victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) for WinStar, China Horse Club, and later additions Starlight Racing and Sol Kumin's Head of Plains Partners.
WinStar president Elliott Walden said Kenny Troutt's farm already had a program in which they bought about 20 yearling colts annually, with the goal of winning classics, and the new partnership enabled the elite racing and breeding nursery near Versailles, Ky., to expand that number to 30.
"They have a great team, and they trusted us," Walden said of China Horse Club during the Derby post-race press conference.
When Walden and WinStar general manager David Hanley sat down with Michael Wallace and Mick Flanagan of China Horse Club—along with Tom Ryan, whose SF Bloodstock was also involved in the partnership—to compare notes on horses they were inspecting at the Keeneland sale, there was unanimity that the Scat Daddy colt consigned by breeder John Gunther's Greenwood Farm fit the bill.
"This colt was really special as a yearling," Walden said. "He just stood out. Like Bob (Baffert) said, he's kind of like LeBron (James)."
"He was a beautiful yearling—had great balance and leg, great shoulder, and lovely length and neck, and power," Hanley said. "He had great stature—was a very impressive horse when he was pulled out in front of you. For a big horse, he was very light on his feet, with good action and good energy. All in all, he looked like a nice package. He moved like a horse that could be a powerful dirt horse."
"He was such a beautiful, upstanding horse who was light on his feet," Wallace said. "If we were going to push on a horse in the first few days of that sale, he was the one we were going to push hard for. He stood out head and shoulders above everybody else in that sale."
In addition to his looks and movement, Justify had a pedigree with appeal. He is by a once-promising young Ashford Stud stallion whose career was cut short when he died unexpectedly in 2015. Scat Daddy has since emerged as a top-10 sire.
"We were lucky we got in early on Scat Daddy," Wallace said. "A yearling like that walks into the Keeneland sale now, and he brings three times that amount."
"He is out of a Ghostzapper mare, and the second dam was by Pulpit, so you have two classic dirt horses on the bottom side in Awesome Again (Ghostzapper's sire) and A.P. Indy (the sire of Pulpit). So he ticked a lot of the boxes we look for," Hanley said.
While the partners had high expectations for Justify, they were patient and allowed the colt to grow into his large frame.
"We always thought he would go a classic distance on dirt. He was a big horse, and as a 2-year-old we gave him a little bit of time," Hanley said of Justify, who did not make his first start until Feb. 18 when he won by 9 1/2 lengths in maiden special weight company at Santa Anita Park. That was followed by a 6 1/2-length victory in an optional-claiming allowance event before his Santa Anita Derby (G1) triumph.
"He has benefited from that time and has only matured into what he is as a 3-year-old," Hanley said of the decision to give the colt time to justify his owners' confidence.
The winning partnership was also represented by third-place finisher Audible, a son of Into Mischief who was acquired by China Horse Club and WinStar as a 2-year-old for $500,000 from Crupi's New Castle Farm at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream 2-year-olds in training sale. Audible, who rewarded his owners with a win in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), was purchased by Crupi for $175,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale.
"They are both good-looking horses by good stallions, (and) are now grade 1 winners," Flanagan said.