Scott Blasi shook hands, smiled and made an editorial request. “Now you can run a good picture of him,” the assistant trainer said, as he walked toward Justin Phillip, fresh after winning the Grade I Vanderbilt. “He looks so good. Dapples. I want to see tomorrow’s picture.”
Ten hours earlier, Blasi had opened up The Special to a photo of Justin Phillip, mane flowing, tack flapping, streaking the wrong way of the main track after dumping jockey Garrett Gomez in the post parade of his aborted career debut here in 2010. The dark bay son of First Samurai jumped the outside rail and wound up being caught by trainer Neil Howard. Three years later, all is forgiven.
Hey, Scott, how do you like today’s cover?
Owned by Zayat Stable, trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by John Velazquez, Justin Phillip garnered his first Grade I score with a precise effort in the $400,000 Vanderbilt.
Velazquez always talks about post position, when Justin Phillip drew the outside post of the four speed horses (closer Caixa Eletronica broke on the far outside), he began to formulate yet another boardgame on horseback. Track the leaders, stifle the other stalker and ignore the closer.
Favorite Delaunay broke well and Rosie Napravnik allowed his speed to carry him to lead for the first few strides. To his inside, Joel Rosario had to urge Gentlemen’s Bet to keep his position and they engaged Delaunay quickly. Luis Saez, without options, kept Bahamian Squall in third. Velazquez hemmed in Gentlemen’s Bet and watched the race unfold exactly how he had hoped and expected.
“I loved it,” Velazquez said. “I knew there were two horses with speed, I was hoping they would go and I’d sit right behind them and hold Luis Saez’s horse, the other horse is coming from way back. I didn’t have to worry about the two in front of me, I had the horse inside me and I don’t have to worry about the other horse until the eighth pole, if he shows up.
Gentlemen’s Bet led Delaunay by a half length through the first quarter mile in 22 and through a half in 44.46. Passing the quarter pole, Velazquez eased Justin Phillip outside the leaders, still stifling Bahamian Squall on his inside. By the eighth pole, the two leaders finally began to labor and Justin Phillip roared past them. Bahamian Squall unearthed himself from the rail and rallied to be second, 2 lengths off Justin Phillip, who finished 6 furlongs in 1:08.59.
Velazquez knew he made good decisions, he also knew he had an ally in the process.
“The horse has to help you. If you don’t have the horse, you can’t do it,” Velazquez said. “When the horse lets you do what you want to do, it just happens. You can’t make those decisions when the horse isn’t helping you. On the good days, you do your homework, the horses help you do what you want to do and everything works.”
After the race, Asmussen walked onto the main track, pumped his right fist once to Velazquez and gave Justin Phillip a couple of long and generous pats between his eyes.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to have Justin do that. He’s exactly what you want in a racehorse,” Asmussen said. “We were trying to win the Derby with him when he was 3, multiple two-turn races, against anybody, he didn’t hold any of those stupid decisions by me against us, he’s traveled everywhere, to go over a million dollars and win a Grade I, it’s very rewarding.”
Justin Phillip has rewarded Asmussen with three seasons of consistency.
Bred in Kentucky by Oakbrook Farm, the son of First Samurai won his second start and hit the board in four starts as a 2-year-old. At 3, he auditioned for the classics, finishing fifth in the LeComte and eighth in the Risen Star before finishing third in the Bay Shore and Jerome. In his 10th start, he wired four rivals in the Grade II Woody Stephen for his first stakes win. He stayed in the deep end, swinging and missing in the Amsterdam, King’s Bishop, Vosburgh, Bold Ruler and Tom Fool. He snapped a six-race losing streak last March when he took an optional claimer at Belmont. Then back to the deep end, with tries in the True North, Mr. Prospector, Vanderbilt, Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Palos Verdes and San Carlos.
“We reward a successful race, with a higher fence,” Asmussen said. “You jumped that good, let’s see if you can jump this.’ “
Asmussen knew he needed to drop a rail after Justin Phillip failed to see out his effort in the San Carlos in February, it was the first time he had given up since his two-turn forays early in his 3-year-old season. Asmussen regrouped, shipped Justin Phillip to Oaklawn and looked for shelter from the storm. A $55,000 allowance for horses who hadn’t won a race in six months provided cover. Justin Phillip won by 4 ½ lengths with jockey Ricardo Santana petting him across the wire.
“This was probably the first allowance in God know’s when and it made all the difference, just letting him win, just dominating, he was like, ‘OK, I can do this,’ because he did give up a little in (the San Carlos),” Asmussen said. “He needed to win. The only thing that’s going to make a difference was winning, he’s sound, he’s working great, he’s traveling as well as anybody can. The only thing he needed was to win again.”
That win provided wind. Justin Phillip collected the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn in his next start, finished second in the True North and fourth in the Smile at Calder before heading to Saratoga.
Send off third choice in the field of five, Justin Phillip earned $240,000 for the win, rocking over the $1 million mark in career earnings. Asmussen swears it’s come easy.
“He’s the easiest horse to be around and to train, you want him to go fast, he’ll go fast, you want him to go easy, he’ll go easy. It’s him, he gets the credit for that, it’s his personality, it’s who he is,” Asmussen said. “Scott and I talked about it in the paddock, how much fun he is to run, he acts so good, he’s so good looking.”
Whether he’s running loose as a 2-year-old or winning a Grade I as a 5-year-old.