Justify is three for three and headed for Kentucky after winning Santa Anita Derby

Let the Triple Crown talk commence.

In a performance every bit as impressive as one would expect from a superstar in the making, Justify confidently handled a strong Bolt d’Oro on Saturday to win the $1-million Santa Anita Derby. His three-length win is likely to make him the favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 5 and start talk of a second Triple Crown in four years.

There was some skepticism going into the race that a horse that had run only twice, and never higher than a $56,000 allowance race, could step up to the level of the most important Kentucky Derby prep of the season. No horse who was unraced as a 2-year=old, such as Justify, has won the Kentucky Derby since 1882.

That talk died Saturday.

The seven-horse field was essentially a two-horse race. Justify went to the lead at the break and Bolt d’Oro tucked in on the rail right behind him. Justify extended his lead on the backstretch, which was not the plan. Jockey Mike Smith said the colt was distracted.

“I don’t know what he was looking at,” Smith said. “He spotted something that got his attention and he just kept looking in there.”

That’s when he sprinted out to a bigger lead.

“We might want to put a bigger bit on him,” trainer Bob Baffert said before teasing his jockey. “I told Mike he needed to work out a little more [so he could control him].”

Bolt d’Oro made up some distance on the turn and it looked as if a stretch battle was in the offing in the 1 1/8-mile race. But Smith confidently rode Justify as Javier Castellano, riding Bolt d’Oro, was working harder to get his colt to keep up.

“It was emotional turning for home because I’m trying to catch the best horse in the country, and I’m thinking ‘I’m happy. I’m very pleased,’” Castellano said.

The crowd of 39,023 was at full volume when Justify crossed the finish line, knowing the historical potential of the colt.

There is no doubt, if both come out of the race in good shape, that there will be a rematch in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby. It is shaping up to be an outstanding year with several top-notch horses. Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Kentucky Derby last year with Always Dreaming, has four horses that have qualified for the race.

Baffert joked about how lucky he was to have the horse.

“I pinch myself,” Baffert said. “I had [American] Pharoah, Arrogate, now I have this horse. I’ve been on a roll. I’m just fortunate the China Horse Club, and all the connections, sent them to me because Todd could have easily gotten this horse. I must have drawn well out of the hat or something. I feel real fortunate.”

The China Horse Club also has ownership interest in Audible, who won the Florida Derby, and Quip, who won the Tampa Bay Derby, and both are headed to Louisville.

Bolt d’Oro trainer Mick Ruis offered no excuses.

“It was a good race that he needed,” Ruis said. “I thought were up against it at 1 1/8 [miles] and that we would have an advantage if we went [the Kentucky Derby distance of] 1 ¼ [miles]. It’s a good steppingstone. It’s something we can build off of.”

Both trainers were effusive about each other’s horse.

“That horse was everything they said he was,” Ruis said of Justify. “What a brilliant horse.”

Then it was Baffert’s turn.

“[Justify] and Bolt d’Oro are two specimens, just beautiful horses,” Baffert said. “I have a lot of respect for him and he’s going to be tough in the Kentucky Derby.”

Despite only two starts, Justify was the favorite going off at 4-5. Bolt d’Oro, not far behind, was even money.

Justify paid $3.80 to win, $2.20 to place and $2.10 to show. Core Beliefs, at 41-1, finished third, 6 ½ lengths behind Bolt d’Oro. Instilled Regard was fourth followed by Pepe Tono, Orbit Rain and Jimmy Chila.

Justify was not originally scheduled to run in this race but instead in next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. But McKinzie, the Baffert horse who had the classic stretch duel with Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes a month ago, developed a minor hock injury and was taken off the Kentucky Derby trail.

“[Justify’s win] took a lot of the sting out of what happened to McKinzie,” Baffert said.

Ruis thought the hard-fought San Felipe could have taken something out of Bolt d’Oro.

“Maybe that did take a little bit out of him,” Ruis said. “I didn’t want to think that going in, but it was a hard race. He ran a good race [Saturday]. We’ll build off this and get him on Cinco de Mayo.”

john.cherwa@latimes.com

@jcherwa

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