BALTIMORE — Perhaps the most telling moment in the Kentucky Derby was when, at the quarter pole, 2017 2-year-old champion Good Magic, clearly back to the form that was good enough to crush the field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, looked like a real threat to Justify. Watch the video again and freeze the frame in your mind. Look closely. What do you see?
You see a really nice little horse against an absolute giant of a horse, 100 pounds heavier than 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. That would be Justify, bigger and stronger with a much longer stride.
"I looked underneath my arms a couple of times [during the race], and the rest of them were right behind me,'' Justify's jockey, Mike Smith, said. "I figured if I was going fast, they were going fast with me. When I called on him heading for home, once he switched over to his right lead, he dug back in. And he could have gone around again. He wasn't going to let them by.''
No, he was not going to let them by — not Good Magic, not any of them. It was sheer domination, something the colt's trainer sensed not long after Justify arrived at his barn.
"When I worked him the first time at Santa Anita, he did something really incredible in the morning,'' trainer Bob Baffert said. "It wasn't that fast of a time, but it was the way he did it. There's nothing like seeing a horse like that and, you just know, this is the goods right here."
Then, he ran him on Feb 18 and he really knew.
"And after his maiden win, I thought he is really, really special,'' Baffert said. "As a matter of fact, I thought the timer was wrong. You know, I really didn't think he ran that fast.''
Justify did, though, running seven furlongs in 1 minute, 21.86 seconds.
Horses running for the first time are not supposed to do that. Well, Justify did it, and he's been doing it ever since. He gets his next chance to show off Saturday in the Preakness at Pimlico.
"He's like a Cadillac," said jockey Drayden Van Dyke, who rode the colt in his first race.
Van Dyke did nothing wrong that day, but it was time to call on "Big Money'' Mike, who has ridden Justify in the three subsequent races.
"I have been losing sleep ever since, but in a good way,'' Smith said. "I have been so excited just dreaming about this horse. And he's just an amazing horse. I have never been on a 3‑year‑old like this.''
He has, actually, but it was 24 years ago, so he can be excused for not remembering the great Holy Bull in that moment.
The Bull was favored in the 1994 Derby, but he inexplicably showed nothing on a sloppy track and finished 12th. The rest of the year, Holy Bull won the Hutcheson, Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Metropolitan Mile, Dwyer, Haskell, Travers, and Woodward in one of the best 3-year-old seasons of the past quarter-century on his way to horse of the year.
Just like with Justify, Smith picked up the mount after the colt's first start and never left him.
So, how good is Justify?
Nobody really knows yet, but nothing is out of the question.
Baffert was planning for the Derby even before the horse made his debut. The trainer knew exactly what he had. He knew what Justify's second race was going to be before he ran in that first race.
"He's so athletic,'' Smith said. "He gets over the ground so easy. He is able to keep running. It takes a lot to try to keep up with him. And you got to try to run him down after that. You got to let a fast horse be fast sometimes.''
When you have a naturally fast horse with a stride that seems to last forever, you might have an unbeatable combination.
"I certainly could have kept my foot on the gas a little longer if I wanted to [in the Derby], and he would have stayed in front a whole lot further,'' Smith said.
No need to win by too much. They don't pay for margins in this game.