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In a Kentucky Derby filled with fascinating story lines, Justify manages to stand out

The most-anticipated Kentucky Derby in more than a decade is nearly here, filled with curses, colorful new characters, foreign invaders and the inevitable talk of another Triple Crown winner.

At the center of the discussion is morning-line favorite Justify, who hopes to become the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing as a 2-year old. Saturday will be only his fourth race. It’s the same situation as Magnum Moon, who has been almost as spectacular in only four starts. Both are undefeated and have collectively won by 33 lengths.

There is self-made millionaire Mick Ruis, who not only owns Bolt d’Oro but trains him. He came to Churchill Downs with, by his estimation, $20,000 stuffed in a suitcase that he plans to bet on his colt.

Then there is Mendelssohn, who won his last race, the UAE Derby, by 18 1/2 lengths. But there also is a Dubai curse: No horse that has ever run in the United Arab Emirates race has finished better than fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

And, of course, there is always trainer Todd Pletcher, who, with four starters, will up his total to a high of 52 runners. Yet he has won this race only twice.

But the talk always comes back to Justify and how good this Santa Anita-based runner is and whether he can beat the Curse of Apollo.

“I don’t really ever think about that,” said Bob Baffert, a four-time winner of the Derby, who trains Justify. “There are so many other curses out there. … Now black cats, they kill me. I can just feel it too. Point Given [in 2001] on the way out to the track, a black cat ran in front of him.

“Real Quiet, [in 1998] before the Triple Crown race, I was driving in here and a black cat ran in front of me. They should not allow black cats on the backstretch.”

Point Given, the favorite, finished fifth, and Real Quiet was beaten by a nose in the Belmont, denying him a Triple Crown.

Justify has arguably the best jockey in the game in Mike Smith, who is still riding at 52. He is more than impressed with his colt.

“I certainly wouldn’t trade him for anyone,” Smith said. “He looks the part too. He’s a beautiful horse. He’s doing well; his color is good. He seems to be happy and ready to roll.”

But Smith acknowledges this as an exceptional class of 3-year-olds.

“He’s going to have to do everything right with the field this year,” Smith said. “It’s as tough as any field in the Derby. It’s so hard to win this race. He’s talented and doing well, but things still have to work out for you.”

The game is always in need of a new superstar to revive interest in a sport that struggles to stay relevant. Lately, the stars have been based in Southern California, be it Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, one-in-a-million shot California Chrome or Arrogate, who ruled horse racing, until he didn’t.

Justify could be the horse that fits that profile.

“He just has that ‘it’ factor,” Smith said. “No one can tell you what it is, it’s just a whole lot of different things that make them who they are. He’s so athletic. He has a brilliant mind to go with it. He’s eager to please. You can turn him off and on. And for such a big horse, he’s so light on his feet.”

Justify was slow developing, as he needed to grow into his large body before he could start racing. Baffert is especially good with late-developing horses, evidenced by Arrogate and West Coast, both Eclipse Award winners who didn’t race in the Triple Crown series.

But in this case, he fast-tracked the colt to be ready for the Kentucky Derby.

“When I worked him the first time at Santa Anita, he did something really incredible in the morning,” Baffert said. “The time wasn’t that fast, it was the way he did it. I had Drayden Van Dyke on him, and he came back and said, ‘Wow, this horse can run.’ ”

He won his first race on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita by 9 1/2 lengths. Baffert signaled what he thought about this horse by switching jockeys from Van Dyke to the more accomplished Smith.

“I told Elliott Walden [owner of WinStar Farm] that there was an allowance race a few weeks after that, and from there, we could take a shot at the Arkansas Derby,” Baffert said.

He won his second race, an allowance, by 6 1/2 lengths. The problem was that Justify had no Kentucky Derby qualifying points, so he had to finish first or second in his first major stakes race. Baffert had another colt, McKinzie, scheduled for the Santa Anita Derby but when he got hurt, it was decided to keep Justify at home and run against the very talented Bolt d’Oro.

Justify won that race by an easy three lengths.

“There’s nothing like knowing when you see a horse like that,” Baffert said. “And you just know. This is the goods right here.”

But like everyone says, it takes more than talent to win the Kentucky Derby; you also need racing luck. Who has that luck will be known about two minutes after the gate opens early Saturday evening.

johnacherwa@gmail.com

@jcherwa

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