Top class modern racehorses would almost never be asked to do what Justify was attempting in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. That the massive chestnut colt, a perfect picture of the classic thoroughbred, then went out and won the race with such flair against one of the strongest Derby fields in memory just reinforces what his trainer knew before Justify ever ran in a race. He knew he had a very special horse. Now, everybody does.
Just 76 days after the first race of his life, Justify dominated the Derby with his speed, his stride, and his talent. Only Bob Baffert ever would have conceived such a plan – maiden race, allowance race, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby from Feb. 18 to May 5. And only American horse racing’s most well-known personality and most daring trainer could have pulled it off.
An unraced 2-year-old had not won the Derby since 1882. Baffert did not care about that. Talent, he was certain, would trump experience.
No horse had won the Triple Crown in 37 years until Baffert won it three years ago with American Pharoah. When the right strategy in the 2015 Belmont Stakes was to send Pharoah to the front, Baffert knew it and insisted on it.
Where others see barriers, the trainer sees opportunity. And when you have opportunity, you want to leave nothing to chance.
After Justify’s first race, Baffert immediately replaced young but talented jockey Drayden Van Dyke with ageless “Big Money’’ Mike Smith.
The strategy in this Derby was clear. Trainer and jockey knew it. They wanted Justify to be no worse than second by the first turn. The horse was second. They wanted Justify to get clear on the far turn. The horse got clear on the far turn. And they wanted his massive stride to bring him home. When 2017 2-year-old champion Good Magic made a strong run toward Justify at the quarter pole, it was that stride that sent him away again to a convincing victory.
This was Baffert’s fifth Derby win. Only Ben Jones, who trained for the legendary Calumet Farm with all its Derby winners and Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation, has more, with six And Jones never did it with a horse that came so far so fast and had to run on a brutal rainy day that was as miserable as any in Derby history.
“It’s like having LeBron James on your team,’’ Baffert said. “You better win a championship with him. That’s the way we feel.’’
When, in the final few hundred yards, it was obvious Justify was going to win, Baffert said, “I was just in awe of the performance. That’s the best Kentucky Derby‑winning performance that I’ve brought up here.’’
When the trainer who has seen just about everything says that, it has real meaning.
“We saw something really great,” Baffert said.
We did indeed. Now, Justify will get a chance on May 19 to win five races in the first 90 days of his career. The Preakness is next.