He just … feels like a Kentucky Derby champion.
Maybe it’s the massive, rippling frame. Maybe it’s the chestnut coat, evocative of Secretariat and other beloved runners of yore. Maybe it’s the one-word name that seems to beg for an exclamation point at the end.
For 52-year-old jockey Mike Smith, it was the sensation Justify gave him the first time he climbed aboard and asked the 3-year-old colt to move. “Freaky,” said Smith, who has ridden some of the greatest thoroughbreds of the last quarter century.
For a lot of people, it’s the white-maned gentleman standing beside the entrance to Barn 33, Justify’s temporary home this week at Churchill Downs. The backstretch carnival always seems to center on Bob Baffert when he brings a horse to Kentucky with a real chance of winning.
When Baffert — who’s won the Derby four times — believes in a horse, he speaks not in bold declarations but in subtle drips of confidence. So it was three years ago with American Pharoah. And so it has been this week with Justify, a 3-1 favorite in the morning line for Saturday’s race.
“He’s a superior race horse,” the Hall of Fame trainer said this week. “He’s just so talented.”
This is Baffert’s first serious chance to win his fifth Derby since American Pharoah swept to the Triple Crown in 2015. He had a potential favorite last year, but Mastery fractured his left front leg after a dominant win in the San Felipe Stakes. Another top contender, McKinzie, fell off the Derby trail this year because of leg injury.
Which is all a way of saying Baffert appreciates what he has in Justify — a gifted, undefeated horse who seems to be peaking at the ideal moment.
So why don’t we just throw the garland of roses on him and save the other 19 horses the trouble?
Well, there is that pesky curse.
Justify did not run a race as a 2-year-old. The last time a horse won the Derby without a 2-year-old start on his resume was 136 years ago (for perspective, the race itself is 144 years old). If you follow the sport, you know his name.
Baffert had fun with it this week. Asked the biggest threat to Justify on Saturday afternoon, he pushed his voice to a mock-horrified rasp and said: “Apollo!”
Ah yes, the name of the 1882 champion and keeper of the curse. But it’s not a curse, really. More a very long trend or a warning to those who would dare show up with an insufficiently tested contender.
But history rolls on, and the era of Secretariat and Affirmed, who both ran nine times as 2-year-olds, is done. It’s no longer strange for a Derby contender to arrive with just four or five starts on his resume. Almost every top trainer and owner on the backstretch seems to agree the Curse of Apollo is ripe to fall.
Justify isn’t the only top contender with a shot to topple it. Magnum Moon, the 6-1 third choice in the morning line, also did not run as a 2-year-old.
“Apollo” would hardly be the first arcane theory to be demolished by the right horse. For a long time, handicappers pointed to “Dosage Index,” a statistical measure of a horse’s pedigree for running at greater distances. Adherents believed that contenders with a Dosage Index above 4 were actually pretenders.
Well, American Pharoah’s Dosage Index was 4.33.
“Everybody talked about it and talked about it until it didn’t need to be talked about anymore,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify. “I’m not worried about the curse. I think a big part of it is that the sample set is so small. I haven’t done the research, but typically, how many horses in the Derby didn’t run at 2? Probably one or two a year out of 20, so your percentage chances of winning are small going in.”
Curses aside, there is something to the inexperience angle. Baffert and Smith acknowledge it’s hard to know everything about a horse after just three starts (only one of them a graded stakes).
In the most important race of his young career, the Santa Anita Derby, Justify glided straight to the lead and hardly broke a sweat holding off another top Derby contender, Bolt d’Oro.
But what if he hadn’t been able to make that initial move unchallenged? How would he react to a bad turn of racing luck?
“We know he’s a great horse. But still, he has to do it,” Baffert said. “When you have 20 horses, the trip is so important — racing luck. Ten of them are probably going to get wiped out before the first turn. You just hope you’re not one of them.”
That’s why he believes it’s so vital that Justify get off to a fast, clean start, breaking from the No. 7 post on Saturday.
“If he gets in trouble, it’ll have an effect,” he said of his horse’s inexperience. “If he doesn’t break well and he gets behind other horses, that’s when it comes to fruition.”
Of course, skeptics raised many of the same questions about American Pharoah three years ago, and he made his own luck, using his air-gulping stride to run away from potential trouble.
Smith sees the same level of talent in Justify, whom he compared to Baffert’s 2001 Horse of the Year, Point Given.
He keeps going back to the first time he rode the colt, when he asked him to accelerate coming around the far turn on a muddy track. Justify made up three lengths in a blink.
“What the heck was that?” Smith recalled thinking. “He just does things crazy easy. For as big as he is, he’s got all that athleticism.”
At Santa Anita, he sensed Justify was distracted about three strides out of the starting gate. He worried the hubbub of the infield had caught the young horse’s eye. That would perhaps bode poorly for his chances in the 170,000-person madhouse that is Churchill Downs on Derby day.
As it turned out, Justify had bent his shoe. He still won easily.
“Man, what would he have done if he had just focused and ran?” Smith said.
The veteran rider has a clear vision for Saturday.
“I’d like to be happy, comfortable and clear,” Smith said. “It could put him right off the lead, a couple lengths off Promises Fulfilled maybe. But saying that too, I wouldn’t be shocked if I’m on the lead, unless they’re really determined to be out front.”
It’s the same formula Victor Espinoza used to ride American Pharoah to the Triple Crown.
We forget now, but many rated the 2015 crop of 3-year-olds as exceptional going into the Derby. American Pharoah only made them seem like bit players in retrospect. Justify, too, faces a field packed with gifted, accomplished rivals. That’s perhaps the biggest factor weighing against him.
“Justify looks like he has the most upside, the most potential to improve,” said NBC commentator and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said. “But to me, it’s as deep a Derby as I’ve ever seen.”
“You could go half way down the field, and they’re all horses to beat,” said trainer Dale Romans, who has two contenders in the field. “Some years you can narrow it down, but I couldn’t put my money on anybody with a lot of confidence.”
If Justify is to dust them all, he’ll likely have to call on traits that were hardly tested in his first three races. But for Smith, that’s exciting rather than daunting.
“I think there’s a lot about him we haven’t seen yet, and I think that’s a good thing,” the jockey said. “I don’t know how good this horse is, to be honest with you.”