It was always about the break. Trainer Bob Baffert has seen how a bad break can cause the best horse in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby to lose. It happened in 2010 with Lookin At Lucky, who had the misfortune of drawing the inside post in a field of 20, then leaving the starting gate a step slow.
He's seen how the mud and the horses and the cavalry charge from the outside can swallow up a horse's chances in the blink of an eye in this mad mile and a quarter dash around the Churchill Downs racetrack. That was his concern with Justify, a son of Scat Daddy who came off the bench when the Hall of Fame conditioner's No. 1 Derby hope, McKinzie, was derailed in March with an injury said to be minor – though there are no “minor” injuries on the road to the most sought-after prize in American racing.
“If he breaks …” Baffert said, over and over when assessing Justify's chances to successfully carry the favorite's mantle into the infield winner's circle after this 144th Derby. A clean break for Justify meant Baffert stood a very good chance of claiming his fifth Kentucky Derby. Only Ben Jones of Calumet Farm fame, with six, has won more.
Over the course of a year, favorites win, on average, one out of three Thoroughbred races. We have seen over time how cruel the Derby can be to horses who come to Louisville with polished resumes, only to have them rejected because of thin pedigrees or bad racing luck. Following a run in the 1970s when six favorites won the race, Derby favorites went down to defeat 20 consecutive years until Fusaichi Pegasus restored some semblance of order in 2000.
That pendulum has swung back in the other direction, and now seems stuck in Chalk City. Since 2013, when track officials installed a new eligibility system for the Kentucky Derby, with points from designated races replacing earnings in American Graded Stakes races as a qualifier, there had been five consecutive winning favorites, something that had never happened before.
Justify made it six.
The race was virtually over when the chestnut colt broke cleanly from the number seven stall in the main starting gate and Mike Smith allowed him to cruise up alongside the Dale Romans-trained Promises Fulfilled, the expected pacesetter who broke from the number three stall.
Mendelssohn was one of three other Scat Daddy colts in the Derby field and third betting choice by virtue of his other-worldly 18 1/2-length win in the G2 UAE Derby in Dubai for Aidan O'Brien and his Coolmore connections. He didn't break all that well from the last spot in the main gate under Ryan Moore and was quickly eating mud after horses from the auxiliary gate – led by Magnum Moon and jockey Luis Saez – converged on him after taking a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the stall doors opened.
In truth, Mendelssohn's race may have been lost on the walkover from the stables, where he became agitated and studdish in reaction to the massive crowd that O'Brien would later say left even him “shell-shocked.” In comments to RacingUK.com about what he learned at this year's Derby, O'Brien said, “We weren't prepared for the level of atmosphere. There were around 170,000 people; all wet; all screaming. There was rain coming from everywhere and everyone was drowned.”
In fact, it is amazing that more horses don't lose their cool in a tradition that is peculiar to America's most famous race. Years ago, the walkover was an opportunity for a horse's connections to soak in the flavor of Derby day at Churchill Downs, by accompanying their runner from the stable to the saddling paddock.
The 2018 walkover looked more like Sherman's Army marching to the Sea, with thousands parading around the racetrack and then clogging the tunnel beneath the grandstand to the point that there was barely room for the horses to get through. One Derby runner's handler said security was outnumbered in their efforts to limit the flow of people from the walkover into that area.
It's likely that a combination of factors – the demanding mile and a quarter distance, the large field, the circus-like atmosphere – has perpetuated one of the oldest traditions of the race that dates back to 1882 winner Apollo: namely, that a horse could not win the Kentucky Derby without having had at least some racing experience as a 2-year-old.
Justify, who debuted with the first of three stylish wins at Santa Anita on Feb. 18, broke through that barrier emphatically. He never once looked in danger, winning by 2 ½ lengths over reigning champion Good Magic, the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner. Audible, the G1 Florida Derby winner and one of four Derby starters from the Todd Pletcher barn, was a head back in third.
This was a very good group of horses, some of whom did not have a chance to run their races, in part because of racing luck and in part because of a sloppy racetrack that had absorbed record Derby day rainfall.
Yet, with the exception of D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer of sixth-place finisher Bravazo, no one from this field seems anxious to tackle the Kentucky Derby winner in the Triple Crown's second leg, the G1 Preakness Stakes on May 19.
That wasn't the case in 1989, when Shug McGaughey brought beaten Derby favorite Easy Goer to Pimlico for another crack at the Derby winner, Sunday Silence, setting up one of the greatest races I've ever seen.
It wasn't the case in 1998, either, when trainer Elliott Walden tried to beat Baffert-trained Derby winner Real Quiet in the Preakness with second-place Derby finisher Victory Gallop.
Both Easy Goer and Victory Gallop would finish second again in the Preakness but gain a full measure of revenge by being Triple Crown spoilers in the Belmont, something Baffert reminded Walden of during this year's post-race press conference.
Walden now is the CEO of Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm, which races Justify in partnership with China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing. He picked Justify out of the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and was part of the decision-making team that sent the colt to Baffert's stable in California.
“Elliott cost me a Triple Crown,” Baffert joked. “So this is his way … you are off the hook, Elliott.”
“You cost me a Derby,” Walden shot back.
Justify joined third-place finisher Audible and 17th-place finisher Noble Indy as Derby starters owned in part by WinStar, which now must decide with their partners whether to take on Justify with another 3-year-old from their talent-rich stable. Quip, winner of the G2 Tampa Bay Derby, was kept out of the Derby to point instead for the Preakness.
Perhaps they'll call an audible.
That's my view from the eighth pole.
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