It became the wettest Kentucky Derby in history this Saturday, with more than 2.8 inches of rain recorded beneath the iconic Twin Spires. The combination of sloppy conditions and inexperience was still not enough to stop the latest Bob Baffert-trained superstar, WinStar, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners' Justify. In just his fourth career start, the 3-year-old son of the late Scat Daddy was right on the pace all the way around the sloppy Churchill Downs oval, moving away with authority in the stretch to win the 144th Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths. In so doing, Justify has officially broken the “Curse of Apollo,” becoming just the second Derby winner (and first since 1882) to have not raced as a 2-year-old; Justify's first start was not until February 18 of this year.
Baffert said he wasn't worried about the Curse of Apollo and that his team stayed focused. He recalled when Justify first hit the track for his barn.
“The first time I worked him, I thought he was really special then after his maiden win, I thought we had something really, really special,” Baffert said. “I was just in awe of the performance. He just put himself up there with the greats.”
Jockey Mike Smith, the second oldest jockey to win the Derby (Bill Shoemaker, 54), said his main concern was just getting him out of the gate smoothly. He knew he had the horse to win.
“If I keep riding horses like this, they'll keep you around a long time,” Smith said. “My job was just to get him out of there. He's just an amazing horse.”
This is the Hall of Famer Baffert's fifth Kentucky Derby victory, the second-most of all time behind only Ben Jones, and the second set of Roses for Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. After completing 1 1/4 miles in 2:04.20, Justify paid $7.80 as the race favorite topped the Derby for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year.
Juvenile champion and Blue Grass winner Good Magic was the closest finisher to Justify, fighting on valiantly through the length of the stretch to cross the wire in second. Florida Derby winner Audible got up for third, just a head behind Good Magic, while Instilled Regard finished another 1 3/4 lengths back in fourth.
As expected, the front-running Promises Fulfilled left the starting gates very sharply from his inside post position, immediately striding out for the lead. Smith and Justify also broke well, and were quick to attend the pacesetter on his outside. Bolt d'Oro flashed early speed as well, and Good Magic tucked in near the rail to make the bend around the clubhouse turn.
“This horse is so talented,” Smith said of Justify. “I keep using the term ‘above average' because he has a mind to him as well. It was a sigh of relief when I got him out of the gate and I just stayed out of his way. Bolt d'Oro came to my outside the first time by the wire and I figured if we were going fast up front, they're going fast behind me as well.”
Several contenders were badly jostled at the start, including UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn, who was also forced to check sharply around the first turn. Instilled Regard also endured some serious bumping out of the gate.
At the front of the field, Promises Fulfilled set solid, pressured early fractions of :22.24 and :45.77 while Justify remained just off his hip. Flameaway was up nearly the front as well, with Good Magic between horses and Bolt d'Oro three-wide, all within two lengths of the lead. After three quarters in 1:11.01, Smith asked Justify to go on with it.
At the half-mile pole, Justify took over the lead. Bolt d'Oro briefly looked like he would mount a challenge going around the far turn, but he was eventually passed by Good Magic as Justify just kept pouring it on in the turn for home.
Justify had an advantage of just over a length on Good Magic at the top of the stretch. The leader changed leads easily, and seemed to find a little bit more with each stride as he continued to inch away from his competition. A beaten Good Magic starting drifting around a bit at the eighth pole, but the champion dug back in when Audible came flying up the rail. While Justify crossed the wire a 2 1/2-length winner, Good Magic was able to hold off Audible by a head for the place. Instilled Regard got up to finish fourth, and My Boy Jack, who ran into a wall of horses on the far turn, wound back up and was flying late to be fifth.
“I really thought I was going to get there,” said jockey Jose Ortiz, aboard runner-up Good Magic. “It felt great to be in the position I was in. My horse tried so hard and I can't wait for his future. We had a great trip and he ran so hard.”
“I'm very proud of him,” added Good Magic's trainer Chad Brown. “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. Jose (Ortiz) executed it perfect. I asked him to follow him even if the pace was a little quick to keep him in close range. We thought he was the horse to beat and it was true. Very proud of our horse. He held on for second there. We're working our way toward that winner's circle. It wasn't to be this year. It was a tough field. But I'm real proud of this horse. He kept fighting all the way to the end and he showed that he's a top-class horse.”
The complete order of finish was as follows: Justify, Good Magic, Audible, Instilled Regard, My Boy Jack, Bravazo, Hofburg, Lone Sailor, Vino Rosso, Solomini, Firenze Fire, Bolt d'Oro, Flameaway, Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Free Drop Billy, Noble Indy, Combatant, Magnum Moon, and Mendelssohn.
A crowd of 157,813 watched the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, the eighth largest crowd in the race's history. Interestingly, Justify's co-owner Jack Wolf's Starlight Racing became the first Louisville-based ownership group to win the Derby since Old Rosebud in 1914.
Bred in Kentucky by John Gunther, Justify was produced from the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic. Gunther had purchased her dam, the Grade 1-placed Pulpit mare Magical Illusion, for $425,000 at the 2005 Keeneland January sale. Stage Magic earned a graded stakes placing in the 2011 Gardenia (G3) at Ellis Park, behind champion Groupie Doll. It was the idea of Gunther's daughter, Tanya, to breed Stage Magic to the up-and-coming young stallion Scat Daddy. The match features a unique cross of full sisters each by Mr. Prospector and out of Narrate. Preach, on the female-line side, was a Grade 1-winning juvenile and future dam of Pulpit. Yarn, on the male side, was the dam of Tale of the Cat. Justify's pedigree also includes some inbreeding to Nijinsky.
Justify's pedigree and good looks commanded a $500,000 tag at the Keeneland September Yearling sale. Winner in his first start by 9 1/2 lengths, Justify came back to win an allowance race at Santa Anita in equally impressive fashion. In his third start, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, Justify took down the battle-hardened Bolt d'Oro by three lengths. The colt has now won all four of his lifetime starts, earning $2,098,000. He is the first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Nyquist in 2015, and the ninth since 1915.
“We saw something really great,” Baffert said. “That's greatness right there. When he won his second race we were in (American) Pharoah territory.”