The expectations had been met in a fashion befitting their magnitude, leaving behind in the mud of the most famed racetrack in Thoroughbred racing all the pressure that had been sitting on Bob Baffert's shoulders since Feb. 18.
As Justify hit the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front in the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), validating all that was hoped for and said on his behalf, relief set in for his Hall of Fame conditioner. The son of Scat Daddy delivered in the exact manner his connections dreamed, and with a sunny backdrop to work with May 6, Baffert led the rust-colored colt out of his barn for the morning-after onlookers to admire—and let himself absorb the significance of the moment.
"That's why I never get ahead of myself anymore. … Just enjoy the moment and take it all in," Baffert said. "It's just sinking in now that we won the Kentucky Derby, because it was just so stressful these last few weeks to get him there. Trying to figure out … do I take him there early? Do I wait?
"It's been stressful for me all week, coming in here with a favorite that I knew was a real favorite. I knew we had the horse, but everything has to go well."
The reflective mood Sunday came easy for Baffert, a perk of having his fifth Kentucky Derby winner less than 24 hours earlier. With Justify showing positive signs the morning after he turned back champion Good Magic over the sloppy (sealed) Churchill Downs track, the conversation shifted to whether any rival could stymie the chestnut colt in the May 19 Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course and prevent him from heading to Belmont Park three weeks later with Triple Crown history on the line.
"I think we won the toughest one—the Kentucky Derby, that's the toughest and most important one," Baffert said. "If he wins the Preakness, then after that we'll see. But I'm not like, we're going to do this or that. We're going to take it one race at a time."
Based on what Justify has shown since his debut at Santa Anita Park Feb. 18, it will either take a monster step forward from one of his rivals or a series of unfortunate circumstances to prevent the budding superstar from making his expected time in Baltimore the latest exhibition of his brilliance.
As efficient as Justify looked when he put away Bolt d'Oro in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1)—his first try against stakes company—Baffert said he didn't even think the colt's run that day was as impressive as his prior two outings. What he saw from his charge in the Kentucky Derby was another level to a horse he already deemed superior.
In addition to having the mental soundness to handle the wild atmosphere around him, Justify was completely unfazed by the wet going Saturday, as he prompted a wicked pace and still had more in reserve to keep Good Magic at bay in the stretch.
"We saw another gear that we hadn't seen yet," Baffert said. "The Santa Anita Derby was OK, but it wasn't like his second race. Yesterday, when I saw the fractions, I was like, any horse like that is going to lay down or whatever. But he just kept on going. … The great ones do that.
"It looked like it was nothing for him. When he came out of his stall this morning, he was pulling me around there. He looks phenomenal today."
Baffert said Justify would remain at Churchill Downs for the next week before shipping to Baltimore. He added that Solomini —who finished 10th under Flavien Prat—came back in good order and could turn up in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
If ever there was a race that has been good to the white-haired one, however, it is the 1 3/16-mile middle leg of the American classics. Of Baffert's six Preakness wins, four were on the tail of a Kentucky Derby victory, including eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015.
But it might be a small welcoming party waiting to take on Justify.
Good Magic sat just off the early leaders and ran a race good enough to win most editions of the Kentucky Derby, inspiring more praise from his trainer Chad Brown as the two-time Eclipse Award winner watched the colt graze Sunday morning.
"He came out of the race really well," Brown said of Good Magic's runner-up effort. "I'm so proud of this horse and the way he ran and prepared for this race. He was so straightforward and focused. We asked him to do something, and he did it. Even the track—he handled the track fine—so no excuses there. He ran terrific. He was just second-best.
"Yesterday, I think the horse that was supposed to win, won."
Brown said he would ship Good Magic back to New York May 7 and evaluate the son of Curlin before making any decisions on the Preakness.
"I don't know what we're doing yet," said Brown, who won last year's Preakness with Cloud Computing. "I want to get the horse back home and evaluate his energy level. He looks real sound this morning, but I'm not really committed at this point."
Trainer Todd Pletcher said all four of his Kentucky Derby entrants came out of the 10-furlong test sound and would also all ship to Belmont Park to regroup. Grade 1 winner Audible was the best finisher of the bunch to get third, missing second by a head, with Vino Rosso (ninth), Noble Indy (17th), and Magnum Moon (19th) rounding out the efforts.
"Everyone seems OK—just a lot of dirt in their eyes, a lot of flushing out last night," Pletcher said. "Vino Rosso, I don't think I've ever had a horse with as much dirt in eyes as he did after that race. We're still flushing it out this morning, but other than that, they were sound.
"Magnum Moon, I think (Instilled Regard) was inside of him and didn't break great. It was just bumper cars for a while, and he just got into a position he'd never been in before behind horses, eating a lot of slop. Just never was able to get into a comfortable rhythm at any point."
Audible, who like Justify is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing, and Head of Plains Partners, is a possibility for the Belmont Stakes, along with Vino Rosso. WinStar Farm also co-owns graded stakes winner Quip, who bypassed the Kentucky Derby with designs on pointing to the Preakness. WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said Sunday the plan for now is still to run Quip in the middle leg, but a final decision has yet to be made.
"If Justify is meant to win the Triple Crown, he'll win the Preakness and nobody will be able to beat him—and that is Quip included," Walden said. "I think you look at it and make the best decision for each horse. I'm not sure what we're going to do yet, but we'll figure it out in the next couple days."
D. Wayne Lukas said Bravazo, the Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) winner who finished sixth in the Derby, will be pointed to the Preakness, as will Sporting Chance, the 2017 Hopeful Stakes (G1) winner who finished fourth in Saturday's Pat Day Mile Stakes presented by LG and E and KU (G3).
"He's good. I was concerned when I saw the track, but he survived that track pretty darn good," Lukas said. "We had a fairly good trip with Bravazo. I haven't talked to (owner) Brad Kelley yet, but he's game, so I'm sure we'll go (to the Preakness). I think we'll put Sporting Chance in there, also."
Trainer Keith Desormeaux said multiple graded stakes winner My Boy Jack, fifth in the Kentucky Derby, will return to California and be given a break from competition.
"Everything was going beautifully. He was making a sustained move where he (was) clipping off horses and then came to a dead stop," Desormeaux said. "He didn't just check. He checked and retreated, and he had to muscle his way out to finally get a run. He got relegated to last, and when he finally got out, he had to muscle his way through to make his run.
"After all that, for him to rally the way he did and run down good horses in the stretch was awesome. He's had three races in six weeks, so I don't think we're going to beat him up again in the Preakness. There are no set plans right now."
Christina Jelm, assistant for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, said Instilled Regard was well following his Kentucky Derby fourth-place finish and will return to California for a break
"He is great today. After the race, he came bouncing back off the racetrack and was ready to go another round," Jelm said. "His legs are good, he ate well and went out for a bite of grass. Things are good. He's happy."
Bill Mott was pleased with Hofburg's seventh-place finish that was impacted by traffic problems and said the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) runner-up would likely be aimed at the Belmont Stakes.
"He ran well. Naturally, we would think about the Belmont," Mott said. "He had a couple of horses … in front of him. He had taken the rail, and (jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.) said horses stopped at the same time in front of him, and he couldn't get around."
What most everyone agreed upon Sunday morning was that something exceptional had taken place on an otherwise dreary day only hours earlier.
"I put him up there with that kind of superior kind of horse that just has speed—and more speed on top of that," Baffert said. "He's got that big, long stride, and he's just so efficient. He does it so easily."
Ron Mitchell contributed to this report.