It was Feb. 20, two days after a performance by a first-time starter that was almost beyond belief. I was searching for comparisons when a text message came in from a friend who lives in Las Vegas. He said he just bet on the horse to win the Kentucky Derby at 40-1 in the future book. Did I want some action at that price?
Of course, I did.
This was a colt trained by Bob Baffert. This was Justify, who started running fast in that Santa Anita debut and kept running faster right through the wire. The Beyer Speed Figure came back at 104 – the kind of number that can win the Derby some years.
When I thought about the last time I was that impressed by a 3-year-old making his first start in the winter, the only name that came to me was Curlin, who finished third in the 2007 Derby, won the Preakness and finished second in the Belmont Stakes. He was named horse of the year in 2007 and 2008.
I tried to remember a horse with so little experience running that fast and sustaining it all the way to the end. My basis for comparison was Smarty Jones’ second career start, when, during the race, trainer John Servis told Roy and Pat Chapman (the colt’s owners) that Smarty was “going too fast.” Turned out, he just was that fast.
On March 12, the day after Justify’s second start – a dazzling win on a muddy track at one mile – I texted Baffert that the colt got a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.
Baffert texted back: “Good thing he didn’t let him run. Lol.” He added that Justify is “big beautiful horse.”
My reply: That really was ridiculous; so smooth. No pressure, but I have him at 40-1 in the future book.”
“I have him at 300 to 1,” Baffert fired right back. “I knew a little earlier than you. Lol. Big red machine.”
Of course he knew. He’s Bob Baffert.
When Justify ran in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, he was favored over Bolt d’Oro, a colt with much more experience and many more accomplishments. Justify won by 3 lengths and got a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, a number that will almost certainly win Saturday’s Derby.
For all his success, Baffert does not do hyperbole. He knows what he is seeing and does not try to hide it.
When he talks about Justify, he uses adjectives he had previously used only for 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate.
So that 40-1 shot in February is the 3-1 morning line favorite in May. Now all Justify must do is beat 19 horses at Churchill Downs.
Justify does not have to win, of course. This is horse racing, where a second can change everything. But it is quite reassuring to have the fastest horse, an unbeaten horse, a horse with a high ceiling. And it is very nice to have that horse at a price you normally associate with a horse that has almost no chance.
Baffert, as he said, knew early what was in his barn.
“They get ready quickly,” he said of the really good horses. “They do things effortlessly. So you didn’t have to really work at it. … And first out, with the way he ran, it was just incredible, the way he went really [fast] fractions and just re-broke. So he showed us right there how special he was.”
That was the appetizer. The two races since then have confirmed it was no mirage. In the 25-year history of the Beyer Speed Figures being published, out of hundreds of thousands of horses, Justify is only the 18th to begin his career with three consecutive triple-digit figures and just the second in that group to run in the Derby.
In 1997, Pulpit came to the Derby with five straight triple-digit numbers. He got a 105 Beyer in the Derby, a number that could win some years, but not that year. Silver Charm, Captain Bodgit and Free House, part of a spectacular 3-year-old class, finished 1-2-3, with Pulpit fourth.
This is a very good and consistent group this year, but Justify, even though he’s not as accomplished as some others, has something they don’t have – flat-out sustainable speed.