Undefeated Justify the Derby Favorite after Santa Anita Win

Kevin Stott

Monday, April 16, 2018 1:58 PM UTC

Monday, Apr. 16, 2018 1:58 PM UTC

The speedy 3-year-old hopes to break the 130-year-old “Curse of Apollo” and become the first thoroughbred to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old.

Kentucky Derby Top Contenders Preview: Justify

An American-bred and undefeated chestnut colt trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Justify (4/1 to win Kentucky Derby, Bovada), held off Bolt d’Oro to win by by 3 lengths in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby (G1) at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, on April 7 in the biggest race of his young career. The 3-year-old thoroughbred quickly supplanted UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn (5/1 to win Kentucky Derby) as the favorite in the 2018 Kentucky Derby futures book as he recorded a calendar-year-high 107 Beyer Speed Figure (for 3-year-old males) and still looked like he ran a less-than-perfect race with a less-than-perfect route on his way to the Santa Anita winner’s circle.

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As the May 5 Kentucky Derby approaches, there seems to be a plethora of talented horses who could win in Louisville, including Justify — who didn’t race as a 2-year-old — and who may have benefited from an injury to stablemate McKinzie, who was pulled from the Santa Anita Derby (and subsequently the entire Triple Crown series) with jockey Mike Smith switching to Justify and then winning the monster Super Six prep race in California last weekend, earning a needed 100 points in the process and a spot in the Kentucky Derby, as well as the respect from oddsmakers and sportsbooks as the race’s chalk. Last year, Always Dreaming became the 5th consecutive (closing) odds favorite to win the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Justify was sold for $500,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sales and didn’t make his first start until less than 2 months ago, on Feb. 18 in a 7-furlong maiden special-weight race at Santa Anita Park where he went off as the 1/2 betting favorite. After breaking poorly, Justify made a run and challenged for the lead, completing the first quarter mile in 21.80 seconds before taking command and winning big, registering 104 Beyer Speed Figure in his debut. Not too shabby. At that point, Baffert started thinking maybe a Derby shot was possible, but he wanted to run his still-green horse in a graded stakes race. His next start was in an allowance race at Santa Anita Park on March 11 where Justify went off as a massive 1/20 favorite and won by 6.5 lengths. "I didn't ask him to move," jockey Smith said after the easy ride and victory.

The now-confident Baffert then switched from hopes of McKinzie to hopes of Justify and entered him in the Santa Anita Derby, where he again went off as the favorite, this time as a slim 4/5 chalk over instant-rival Bolt d’Oro (6/5). Justify made it a perfect three wins in three races, running a crooked route but holding off Bolt d’Oro. But Justify will have to try to overcome the dreaded “Curse of Apollo,” a reality in which no horse since Apollo in 1888 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.

"Justify is a natural and he's still green, just learning how to run. He's so talented," Baffert said. "But there are a lot of nice horses out there this year."

Justify (107, 104, 101 Beyer Speed Figures) has much in common with European sensation Mendelssohn (106 Beyer Speed Figure in UAE Derby) in that both are still still a little raw but possess the blazing breakaway and closing speed that will be needed in the crazy 20-horse field, which perhaps will include the most talent in eons. If Justify and Mendelssohn don’t get pinned in or stuck on the rail, we may see an incredible duel between the two down the homestretch at Churchill Downs, although with Bolt d’Oro (102, 101 Beyer Speed Figures), Audible (99, 99), Magnum Moon (97, 95) and Vino Rosso (98) probably all in The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports, there will be loads of speed with long shots such as Quip, Flameaway, My Boy Jack and Free Drop Billy very capable of stealing the show.

The Kentucky Derby will be only the fourth race ever for Justify. He drifted a bit down the stretch at Santa Anita, shrinking what was a 9-length lead to to just 3 lengths at the finish line. At the Kentucky Derby, any drifting or choppy closing tendencies could be costly against the best jockeys in the world.

So an injury to a stablemate possibly put Justify in this wonderful spot, but now with all of the instant spotlight and pressure of suddenly being the favorite in the biggest horse race of the year, it seems any perceived value has been lost. And although Justify might stay as the odds favorite with two weeks to go and Baffert hopes the chalk wins for a sixth straight year at Churchill Downs, with this crop of 3-year-old stars the ultimate value probably lies in looking for others with better perceived value who can beat Justify. And like with Mendelssohn, who had a breezy and wide open track in Dubai in the 9-horse UAE Derby, and Magnum Moon, who had an easy trip and held the lead and won in the Arkansas Derby, The Run For The Roses will be twice as crowded with thrice the talent. Whoever ends up winning will have to avoid getting clogged up, not being in a position to make a run as the pack enters the homestretch and take the shortest possible route in a sea of hooves used to finishing first.

Jockeys' decisions will be massive on that first Saturday in May. With Smith onboard Justify and the colt still learning and capable of running even better races, he is definitely one of the best six horses likely to run in the Derby, but expecting so much of him in this spot and only getting 4/1 (or less) futures odds against this potential field doesn’t seem right, although they will probably be even shorter (oddsmaker Roxy Roxborough made Justify the 9/2 favorite) when the exact 20-horse field is set. And with no horse that hasn’t run as a 2-year-old winning in Louisville since 1888, it’s hard to want to blindly back Justify with your horse racing picks despite his win at Santa Anita, perfect 3-0-0 record and super Beyer speed figures, especially with other great horses in the mix.

The April 9 Kentucky Derby Media Poll has Justify its new No. 1. Bolt d’Oro dropped to No. 2, and Audible is No. 3.

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