Bob Baffert had ducked into the horsemen’s lounge just off the paddock at Churchill Downs, still wearing the see-through poncho he’d pulled over his blue suit to protect him from the furious rain.
That downpour, which had not been forecast, made him nervous. The Hall of Fame trainer knew in his bones that his horse, Justify, was the most talented in the star-studded Kentucky Derby field. But he knew equally well that the deep mud on the track could reduce his best-laid plans to chaos.
His wife, Jill, crossed herself as she often does before a big race. And Baffert held his breath for the all-important break. When jockey Mike Smith took the colt out clean, he exhaled ever so slightly.
“Show me what a great horse you are!” he shouted, as he watched the big chestnut take the lead on the flat-screen television pinned to the wall.
Justify complied, winning the 144th Derby in spectacular fashion and laying to rest the 136-year-old Curse of Apollo, the rule that said no horse could win the Derby without having run as a 2-year-old.
The newest champion of Churchill did not run his first race until Feb. 18, and started as the 5-2 favorite on Saturday despite having run just three times.
But Baffert, who trained American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015, knows superior talent trumps all established rules. He did not hesitate to draw the comparison with his most famous champion in the wake of Justify’s victory.
“When he won his second race, we were in Pharoah territory,” he said. “Him and [2016 Horse of the Year] Arrogate, these are the best two horses I’ve ever trained.”
Yes, he was saying Justify is more gifted than American Pharoah.
With his romp in the $2.192-million race before a soggy crowd of 157,813, Justify gave Baffert his fifth Derby victory, one short of the record held by Ben Jones.
Despite the horrid weather, Justify ran the exact race Smith had laid out during the week, breaking clean and fast, sitting just off the hot early pace set by Promises Fulfilled and then making his move going in to the far turn. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic made a strong move to catch him but could only get within 2 ½ lengths at the wire. Florida Derby winner Audible also closed strong to finish third.
Justify paid $7.80 on a $2 bet to win, $6 to place and $4.40 to show. Good Magic paid $9.20 and $6.60. Audible paid $5.80.
Smith said he could have asked Justify to run harder if necessary. He said he let out a sigh of relief after the break and told the horse “you do it from here.”
The Derby victory was Smith’s second, and at 52, he’s the second oldest jockey to win the race behind Bill Shoemaker.
As Baffert watched the blistering early factions pop on the screen — 22.24 seconds for the first ¼ mile and 45.77 seconds for the first ½ mile — he wondered if Justify could hold on.
“That’s too fast,” his wife said.
“He better be good,” Baffert recalled thinking at that moment. “He better be great.”
Justify was great, a fact rival trainers conceded in the aftermath.
“We knew he was the horse to beat,” said Todd Pletcher, who saddled four horses in the Derby. “He kind of never had a straw in his path, which was to his credit. He did that for himself. We were hoping he’d have to overcome a little adversity, but he broke sharply and put himself in a good spot. He’s an awfully good horse.”
“He’s a wonderful horse. Look what he did to this field,” said Mick Ruis, owner and trainer of Bolt d’Oro, who also lost to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. “He just kept on going. I ain’t going to say anything bad about that horse. That horse has a legit chance to go all the way.”
All the way, of course, refers to a potential Triple Crown run. And Justify’s connections expressed little fear of the two-week turnaround between the Derby and the May 19 Preakness.
“It certainly feels like he has a good chance to pull off the two weeks,” said Elliott Walden, the president and CEO of Justify’s part owner, WinStar Farm. “What he did today was phenomenal.”
Former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player Sol Kumin is also part of the ownership group after buying a 15-percent stake of Justify in February. Kumin became the first owner since 1952 to have Kentucky Oaks and Derby winners in the same weekend.
Despite the brevity of Justify’s career, Baffert and Smith both saw signs of freakish talent early in their time with him.
Baffert said he “thought the timer was wrong” after Justify won his maiden race at Santa Anita.
Smith climbed aboard the colt for the first time on March 11. He asked Justify to accelerate around the far turn on a muddy track. “What the heck was that?” he thought when the horse made up three lengths in a blink on the way to another victory.
“Everything just comes very comfortable for him,” the veteran jockey said.
Baffert often talks about the pressure he feels when he’s charged with developing a potential all-time great talent.
“It’s like having LeBron James on your team,” he said. “When you have LeBron, you’re supposed to win a championship.”
He didn’t want to speak in those terms during the week, lest he jinx the situation. And he was freaked out by the relentless rain on Saturday, because he knew it could neutralize the horse’s superior gifts.
He also respected the field as much as any he’d faced at Churchill Downs.
There was the Irish invader Mendelssohn, regarded as the best European-trained contender ever to shoot for the Derby. There were the four horses trained by Pletcher, led by Audible and undefeated Magnum Moon. There was battle tested Bolt d’Oro, owned and trained by the upstart scaffolding baron, Ruis, and 2-year-old champion Good Magic, saddled by the hottest trainer in the game, Chad Brown.
“We were ready to head out the gate the moment they crossed the wire,” Baffert said, acknowledging the crushing disappointment he feared.
The anxiety did not fade until Justify was 1/8 of a mile from victory, and it did not die completely until the colt safely crossed the finish line.
“That’s greatness right there,” Baffert said as he caught his breath, pushing his way from the paddock to the track.
But even more than awe at what Justify had delivered, he felt relief.