Bob Baffert steered clear of the comparison all week. It would have been impertinent, perhaps even unlucky, considering the newest star in his barn, Justify, had run his first race less than three months earlier.
But a few of us crowded around the Hall of Fame trainer as he walked from the lounge where he’d watched the Kentucky Derby to the muddy track where Justify had won by 2 ½ lengths. Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated asked the question: Was this new champion’s talent in the same realm as that of Baffert’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah?
Baffert did not hesitate. Yes, he said, Justify had put himself in Pharoah’s class by his second race — an incredible statement considering that March 11 victory was in a five-horse, $56,000 allowance at Santa Anita.
But Baffert was taken with the chestnut colt’s remarkable combination of size, athleticism and intelligence. Justify’s performance in the Derby, where he beat a formidable field with room and energy to spare, only confirmed it.
In that first blush after the race, Baffert seemed to put Justify and 2016 3-year-old of the Year Arrogate above Pharoah. He later amended that statement to say Arrogate, American Pharoah and Justify are the three best horses he’s trained, still an amazing statement considering Baffert has won five Derbys and six Preakness Stakes with horses such as Silver Charm and Point Given.
Back to the central comparison. American Pharoah emerged earlier than Justify, reigning as the 2-year-old champion in his class, even though he missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2014. He wowed veteran clockers with that floating stride that inspired so many Baffert rhapsodies. But he actually had to fight hard to win the 2015 Derby, and that performance left many handicappers wondering if he was even the clear star of his crop.
Baffert equated Pharoah’s performance at Churchill to Justify’s winning run in the Santa Anita Derby — merely pretty good.
Justify’s Derby victory was certainly more commanding, so much so that rival trainers immediately conceded he was the best horse in the aftermath.
Baffert said he did not see that level of dominance from Pharoah until the Preakness, where he burst from a blinding rain storm to win by seven lengths. Then he led the Belmont Stakes gate to wire, putting to rest 37 years of Triple Crown frustration.
So it’s an incomplete comparison for at least another five weeks. But Baffert suggested Justify is one race ahead of Pharoah on the maturation cycle despite the fact he began his racing career so much later.
Justify is a massive horse, about 100 pounds heavier than Pharoah was for his Derby, and his athleticism is stunning for his size. Baffert compared him to LeBron James in that sense. With Pharoah, he always talked more about the stride than the body.
Jockey Mike Smith has also raved about Justify’s talent, saying he’s above average in every area and freakish in his acceleration. He compared the new Derby champ to Baffert’s 2001 Horse of the Year, Point Given, another powerfully built chestnut. But the consensus seems to be that Point Given was a touch clumsier.
We’re at the speculation stage for now. As Baffert said before the Derby, Justify still has to do it on the track before he makes good on any of these comparisons.
But with the Preakness 12 days away, it’s exciting that we have a horse talented enough to prompt such conversations.