He's been highly touted for weeks now, but Justify finally had the chance to prove himself in Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. The 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy, winner of both of his career starts thus far, took the lead out of the gate and cruised around the track all alone on the front end. Briefly engaged by Bolt d'Oro near the head of the stretch, Justify repelled that rival and drew away again to win by 2 3/4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite. Trained by Bob Baffert for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing, Justify's win earned him 100 points and a spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
Veteran jockey Mike Smith played a big role in Justify's victory, keeping the colt off the deep rail throughout the race. He dangled the rail in front of Javier Castellano turning for home, and Castellano sent Bolt d'Oro up the inside. Smith then angled Justify back toward the rail, making it a bit tight on Bolt d'Oro and giving his colt a confidence-boosting victory. Justify completed the nine furlongs over a main track rated “fast” in 1:49.72.
“He rides with room to grow,” Smith said. “He's learning and it's the first time he rides with the infield open, I don't know if he saw the umbrellas and everyone screaming that he got to looking at them so much that I had to get the bit out of his mouth to really make him pay attention and that's when he kind of skirted away and focused. What you're seeing right now is really just raw talent. He's got so much room to grow and to even get better, believe it or not. I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him. He handled a 1 1/8 really well and like I said what you're seeing right now is just raw talent. If he moves forward off of this race, which he should, then it's even kind of scary to talk about.”
The Santa Anita Derby drew a seven-horse field, but all eyes were on Justify and Bolt d'Oro from the start. Both broke cleanly and were forwardly placed crossing under the wire for the first time, but Smith allowed Justify to settle into stride about three paths off the rail with an easy lead. Castellano was content to wait behind the other colt, guiding Bolt d'Oro over near the rail in second down the backstretch.
Justify cruised out to a three-length lead through easy fractions of :23.96 and :47.85, even losing his focus a bit approaching the far turn when his stride briefly faltered. Castellano started lightly encouraging Bolt d'Oro forward at the half-mile pole, and Smith pressed his hands into Justify's neck to get the colt's focus back on the task at hand.
Bolt d'Oro got within a length of Justify nearing the head of the lane, but Smith had a veteran move up his sleeve. He kept Justify off the rail just slightly around the turn, but allowed the colt to bow out significantly, to nearly the four-path, as he straightened into the stretch. Bolt d'Oro had been poised to go around Justify on the outside, but Smith offered up the rail and Castellano sent Bolt d'Oro up the inside.
As soon as Smith saw Castellano out of the corner of his left eye, he started riding with a right-handed wave of the crop at Justify, angling the colt back toward the rail. Justify gradually encouraged Bolt d'Oro over into the deeper going of the inside rail, then drew off from that rival when Smith asked him for a little bit more. At the wire, Justify was 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Bolt d'Oro. Core Beliefs out-finished Instilled Regard for third.
“I told (trainer) Mick (Ruis) that it was a very good race,” said Castellano. “The best horses in the country showed up today and gave a great performance. This was Justify's game plan and it suited him, his ability to be able to go to the lead. I had to try and catch him today. I think it will be interesting in the Derby because I think there will be more speed, it will be interesting. It will suit my horse, he'll be able to sit off that faster pace but I'm still very satisfied with today and my horse's performance.”
Justify was bred in Kentucky by John Gunther, also the breeder of Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso. Justify's dam, the graded stakes-placed Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, was also bred and raced by Gunther. The breeder had purchased her dam, Magical Illusion (Pulpit), for $425,000 at the 2005 Keeneland January sale.
The China Horse Club and Maverick Racing went to $500,000 to procure the colt as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale, but he did not debut until his sophomore season in mid-February. Justify has now won all three of his career starts for earnings of over $660,000.
“Justify is just a natural and he's just learning how to run,” said Baffert. “He has that big, beautiful stride . . . he reminds you a lot of Point Given, just a big, red train type of horse. He's quick and he's light on his feet. It's just good that he showed up, he did what we thought and were hoping he was going to do. I just feel fortunate to have him. It takes a lot of the sting out of what happened to McKinzie. It's a tough business but we've just got to keep going.”
Justify's 100 points secure him a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, and Bolt d'Oro's total of 104 points also have him making it into the field. Instilled Regard has 29 points and is currently sitting in 22nd on the leaderboard.
“I didn't think the fractions were real, real fast,” Ruis said. “I think it was a good race and was what we needed. Hopefully we come out of here really good and get that mile and a quarter. We knew we were up against it a little at a mile and an eighth and that we would have an advantage when he goes a little longer. This is a good steppingstone – we were within two lengths of the winner, so this is one we can build off and go to Churchill Downs.”
The current point standings after Saturday's trio of Kentucky Derby preps are as follows: Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
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