Two trends to consider as we all get time to reflect on the Kentucky Derby tour de force by Justify on Saturday: 1. Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, has delivered four Derby winners to Pimlico. Each of them won the Preakness. 2. Triple Crowns historically come in bunches — three in the 1930s, four in the ’40s, three in the ’70s. There has been one so far in the 2010s.
Now that Baffert has won his fifth Derby and jockey Mike Smith his second, it’s also time to consider just what went down over the 76 days between Justify’s first start and his Derby win. Seriously, horses don’t do that: dominate along the way and come out the other side. It is unprecedented in the modern era, and really any era.
And horses do not chase fractions (22.24, 45.77) that were so fast the horse that set them finished 15th. The horse that was third after a quarter mile — the very accomplished Bolt d’Oro — gave up the chase on the far turn and was practically eased in the stretch, finishing 12th. Flameaway, third after a half mile, ended up 13th.
Justify is the rare horse that can go whatever speed is required to stay away from any traffic problems. When it was necessary for him to go really fast in the Derby, Smith asked him to do it and the horse just kept on going.
“I just, basically stayed out of the way and kept a leg on each side and my mind in the middle,” Smith said.
Everybody who watches races seriously was thinking the same thing when those early fractions were posted during the race. The horses near the front were setting it up for the closers. Well, the closers came, just not for Justify.
“He just put himself up there with the greats,” Baffert said.
It really was that kind of show.
“It was just an awesome performance,” Baffert said. “We were hoping he had that in him. At the three-eighths pole I thought, man, he better be a really good horse. We saw another gear that we hadn’t seen yet. That’s where the greatness comes in. He’s got that big, long stride and he’s just so efficient, he does it so easily.”
So it is on to the Preakness, which Baffert has won six times. Justify will be heavily favored to make it seven and give his trainer 14 Triple Crown race wins, tying him with his good friend Wayne Lukas for the most.
Few connections of the Derby also-rans seemed eager to try Justify in Baltimore. They saw what everybody saw.
“We knew going in that Justify looked like a big monster,’’ said Chad Brown, trainer of runner-up Good Magic. Brown did not rule out the Preakness, but coming back in two weeks would not fit his training style. He did rule out the June 9 Belmont Stakes, saying the mile and a half was just too far for his horse.
Audible finished third for trainer Todd Pletcher. His two Derby winners ran very poorly in the Preakness, the two weeks between races way out of the trainer’s comfort zone. It seems possible Audible would wait for the Belmont Stakes, where Pletcher has had great success with horses that run in the Derby and then pass the Preakness.
“It was an unbelievable performance by the winner, on this track, going that fast,” said Dale Romans, who trained the pace-setter Promises Fulfilled. “He never stopped. He may be a super horse.”
We will know more about that as the sun begins to set over Pimlico on May 19. For now, Justify has run four times and won them all by a combined 21½ lengths, each race dazzling in its own way, and together as a package so impressive that you can hardly wait to see what might happen next.