First String: Derby winner rises to challenge

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Nearly two months remained until the Kentucky Derby 144 and Bob Baffert compared his predicament with the leading classic candidates in the barn to that of the man who won his sixth college football national championship just a few weeks before.

Baffert was loaded as always, with Grade 1 winner McKinzie and graded-stakes tested Solomini battling to carry the flag for the stable with rising upstart Justify not far behind despite being only a late-developing maiden and allowance winner to that point.

A four-time winner of the Derby and tied with D. Wayne Lukas for the second most wins in the race’s storied history, Baffert always wants to be in Louisville the first Saturday in May. Just like Nick Saban at the University of Alabama wants to be in the Pasadena, Miami, New Orleans or any of the other bowl-game sites that lead to college football’s title game. Baffert knew the stock was there and also knew the trick was navigating the time between the next-to-last Derby preps to the last Derby preps to the final weeks before the Derby.

“I’m live, but we still have a ways to go and I don’t want to jinx myself,” Baffert said on a random Wednesday in mid-March, driving home after morning training at Santa Anita Park. “This year, the Derby, there’s some really nice horses and it’s a very competitive year. I hope we can get there.”

One colt Baffert hoped might make it, talented stakes winner Mourinho, was lost just days before when he suffered a fatal injury finishing up a workout. Another he entertained as a possible classic candidate, Restoring Hope, only sported one victory in a maiden race restricted to homebreds and horses sold at public auction for $100,000 or less. Solomini showed talent at 2, finishing second in two Grade 1s and crossing the finish first in another before being disqualified, and was right there despite being eligible for an a-other-than allowance.

That left McKinzie, a colt named for the late and highly respected California track executive Brad McKinzie who died of cancer in August, and Justify, a son of the late Scat Daddy who until just a few weeks before as unraced and relegated to the stable’s second-string barn at Los Alamitos.

Baffert loves sports. He keeps up on them all – or at least the major events – and freely talks about teams, athletes and games as much as any of the top racing prizes won in his Hall of Fame career.

The memory of the 2017 college football national championship game between Alabama and Georgia was still fresh in Baffert’s mind that mid-March morning. The underdog Georgia Bulldogs led the game 13-0 at halftime, with Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts largely held in check and ineffective the first 30 minutes. Saban went to his bench in the second half, sending out true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. A 19-year-old whose only prior experience came largely in mop-up duty during a few Crimson Tide blowout victories, Tagovailoa made Saban look like a genius as he threw a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass for a 26-23 comeback victory.

“I sort of feel like they’re the Alabama quarterbacks,” Baffert said. “McKinzie is like Jalen Hurts, the guy in the first half, solid all year. The other guy is Tua and that’s Justify. They’re both good quarterbacks, they have to be good to play at Alabama.”

Just as highly rated 3-year-olds in Baffert’s barn need to be good to withstand the training, travel and preps on the way to the Kentucky Derby. Justify hadn’t done any of the travel or raced in a significant race of consequence, but Baffert knew he was a good one.

“We just don’t know how good he is,” Baffert said. “He still hasn’t run against those good horses but what I’ve seen in the morning is off the charts.”

The country saw how good Justify was a few weeks later when he repelled a challenge from two-time Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by 3 lengths. Four weeks after that in the rain and the muck and the mud that swept through Louisville to make it the wettest Kentucky Derby on record, the world got to see Justify rise to the top of the class with a sublime performance.

Justify and Mike Smith, who earned the nickname “Big Money Mike” long ago for his penchant for razor precision and unfailing nerves on the grandest stages, tracked or set an extremely hot pace for the 10 furlongs of the Derby and survived to the finish. Justify won by 2 1/2 lengths over last year’s champion 2-year-old male and Blue Grass winner Good Magic, with Audible a late-running third, 85-1 longshot Instilled Regard fourth and surprising second choice My Boy Jack fifth.

Justify won in 2:04.20, after tracking the sixth fastest opening quarter-mile in :22.24 and finishing with a final half in :53.19.

The victory gave Baffert his fifth Derby win and moved him into sole possession of second on the all time list past D. Wayne Lukas and behind only the legendary Ben Jones’ six Derby wins for Calumet Farm from 1938 to 1952. Smith won his second Derby after riding Giacomo to the third largest upset at 50-1 in 2005, joining 26 other jockeys with more than one victory in the race.

Justify ran in the white and green colors of Kenny and Lisa Troutt’s WinStar Farm, one of four ownership entities associated with the colt bought at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale for $500,000. He also raced in the Derby for China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing. Sol Kumin is the man behind Head of Plains and he also is co-owner of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl, making him the first to snare both races in more than 60 years. Justify also made Louisville native Jack Wolf, who heads up Starlight with his wife Laurie, the first owner from the city to win the Derby since Old Rosebud scored for Churchill Downs executive Hamilton Applegate in 1914.

Perhaps most important with those facts and tidbits aside, Justify added another statistic to the scrap heap by becoming the first winner of the Derby to not race as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.

The so-called “Curse of Apollo” seemed destined to go away this year, with Justify and unbeaten Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon in the field looking to end it. Considering the modern game and evolution of training, it only seemed destined that the statistic would join other former hard-and-fast rules about dosage, dual qualifiers, time between prep races, number of prep races, Juvenile jinxes and other beliefs left in tatters the last two decades.

“We broke all the curses,” Baffert said, after adding that Justify even overcame the bad-luck color green that his wife Jill wore for a Derby Day that started cloudy with light rain before a soaking downpour for most of the afternoon.

Justify handled the wet track as well as Baffert-trained American Pharoah did in the Preakness Stakes en route to the Triple Crown in 2015. Breaking clean from post 7 in the full field of 20, Justify and Smith set up shop past the packed stands and finish post the first time just behind expected leader Promises Fulfilled. Bolt d’Oro, Good Magic, Noble Indy, Flameaway and Firenze Fire were right there as the strung-out field rounded the first turn.

Through the half in :45.77 – a time not far off some of the fastest opening 4 furlongs all time at the Derby – Promises Fulfilled still led with a half-length on Justify. Into the backstretch and with about 5 furlongs to run, Justify dragged Smith to almost even terms with the leader and they clicked past 6 furlongs in 1:11.01.

Justify rolled to the lead around the turn and the crowd roared, in a way only the Derby Day crowd can and especially when they sense a battle brewing. As many of the other front markers dropped back, Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic were left to chase.

Bolt d’Oro, who tried Justify without success in the Santa Anita Derby, and Victor Espinoza went first and launched a wide run at the favorite. The run didn’t last long and Bolt d’Oro started to retreat by the time he felt Espinoza’s right-handed whip. Good Magic rolled past Bolt d’Oro on a nice sustained run under Jose Ortiz but couldn’t reach Justify and Smith. Audible made a belated run up the inside and grabbed third, just a head back of Good Magic. The rest of the field, regarded in just about every press report as one of the deepest in history, were well strung out with major players Vino Rosso (seventh), Bolt d’Oro (eighth), Magnum Moon (19th) and Mendelssohn (20th) no match for the winner.

Justify has yet to find a match, winning his four starts by 9 1/2, 6 1/2, 3 and 2 1/2 lengths.

Bred in Kentucky by John Gunther and out of the Grade 3-placed Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, Justify wound up with Baffert after WinStar and China Horse Club teamed up to buy several yearlings. China Horse Club, a group led by Malaysian billionaire Teo Ah Khing, allowed WinStar to invest in about 10 more colts than usual with hopes they could develop into classic contenders and/or stallion prospects.

Baffert won the Kentucky Oaks with China Horse Club’s Abel Tasman last year, and trained Grade 2 winner American Anthem for WinStar, so the Hall of Famer was a natural choice for Justify.

“This colt was really special as a yearling,” said WinStar’s Elliot Walden, who himself has history with Baffert as the trainer of Victory Gallop and spoiler of Real Quiet’s Triple Crown bid 20 years ago. “I have been asked about how we bought him a lot. He just stood out. Like Bob said, he’s kind of like Lebron.

“Bob and I have had a great relationship over the years. I just appreciate his camaraderie with communication. That’s important to me, that we can communicate on a level that I know what’s going on whether they’re 50 miles down the road or 3,000 miles down the road.”

Sent to California last fall and initially relegated to the Los Al string, Justify impressed enough where Walden wondered when he’d move to Baffert’s main barn at Santa Anita.

“We did think Justify was one of our better horses. And, if you are going to send a horse to Bob, you want him in the first barn. You don’t want to be at Los Al too long,” Walden said. “I kept saying, ‘Bob, when are we going to get him to Santa Anita? When are we going to get him to Santa Anita?’ ”

Justify worked seven times at Los Al, the last a bullet 5 furlongs in 1:00 in mid-January. He breezed three times at Santa Anita before his debut, a 9 1/2-length win under Drayden Van Dyke Feb. 18 that started the buzz that Baffert might have another top Derby contender.

Shortly after that victory Baffert told Smith, who rode Arrogate, Abel Tasman, West Coast and several other recent top runners for the stable, that he’d have the mount for Justify’s second race. Smith was aboard for his 6 1/2-length win on a muddy track March 11 at Santa Anita and for the Santa Anita Derby.

“I have been losing sleep ever since, but in a good way,” Smith said. “I have been so excited just dreaming about this horse. All this morning – just 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. And I know Bob and his crew already did their part. He’s just an amazing horse. I have never been on a 3‑year‑old like this.”

Baffert agreed that the start would be critical for Justify, and any of the other top contenders for that matter. He’d been 0-for-6 with horses running Oaks Day and Derby Day, including an off-the-board run by Abel Tasman in the Grade 1 La Troienna and a 13th by Rayya in the Kentucky Oaks.

Baffert frequently discusses the draw and the break as main factors in the Derby, perhaps deferring to his Quarter Horse roots but more likely his stellar record in the opening jewel of the Triple Crown. Observers and horseplayers trying to read the veteran trainer often gain confidence when Baffert downplays his chances and deflects the conversation toward “getting a good break.”

The way the weather deteriorated Saturday and the way things went Derby Week didn’t give Baffert a ton of confidence, despite knowing groom Eduardo Luna and the team led by Jimmy and Dana Barnes were leading over a legitimate favorite. The bettors agreed, sending Justify to the post as the 5-2 choice ahead of the 6-1 duo of My Boy Jack and Mendelssohn, 7-1 Audible and 9-1 Good Magic.

“We had a little game plan. Main thing, we got to get out of the gate. If not, we’re going to head out the gate – out the back gate,” Baffert joked after the race. “Once he broke clean, he was out there. I was looking around. We knew the Dale Romans’ horse (Promises Fulfilled) was going to be on the lead. And I was watching Victor. I knew Victor would try to stay close with us.

When Baffert saw the first quarter fraction of :22 and change, he thought “Wow, man.”

Next to him, Jill Baffert put it more bluntly, “Oh, too fast. Oh.”

Baffert found a little solace in the half-mile split. “Well, he slowed it down. It’s :46 and change. I think they slowed it down.”

Again, Jill found the truth. “No, that’s :45 and change.”

Baffert had one thought, “That’s not good,” and watched the hot pace develop.

“Wow, man, this poor little horse, he’s going to lay down,” Baffert told himself. “There’s no way. He’s going to lay down.”

Actually, the little horse everybody thought was the big horse kept answering the challenge.

“I’d been fretting all week trying to get this big horse there,” Baffert said. “It’s like having Lebron James on your team. You better win a championship with him. That’s the way we feel.”

Baffert was proven right by Justify, the colt he compared to an Alabama quarterback who saved the day on the biggest stage and to the basketball player some call King James who routinely bails out his teammates when the game is on the line.

Now it’s on to Baltimore for the Preakness, where Baffert is undefeated with Kentucky Derby winners and a race he’s won six times overall. Justify, the ninth undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby, appears to have already scared off many potential opponents. Of the Derby runners who chased him in the mud, only Bravazo appeared on his way to Old Hilltop, while Sporting Chance, Quip and Diamond King could run. Trainer Chad Brown said he’d wait until Monday to make a decision on Good Magic.

Regardless of who shows up in the Preakness, the star is almost always the Derby winner. When the Derby winner is undefeated, and trained by a six-time winner of the race who has already won the Triple Crown, the excitement level ramps up a few notches.

“I was just in awe of the performance,” Baffert said. “That’s the best Kentucky Derby‑winning performance that I’ve brought up here. He just did it, he just put himself up there with the greats . . . Hey, I didn’t want to jinx myself, but we knew, I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today.

“The curse thing really didn’t bother me. I was just worried about us, just make sure we did everything right. We shipped right. Jimmy Barnes, all my team, the gallop boys, everybody was in sync. Everybody stayed focused. We have been lucky enough to have these good horses. So we know what we need to do. When we get a good horse, we know what we need to do. That’s why we are entrusted with these good horses.”