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Late-arriving Justify comes a-calling in Kentucky Derby

By Staff | Apr 13, 2018

History can be written by many authors. Stunning athletic feats and talked-about records can leap into view seemingly at any time. Accomplishments can come forth from places never visited before. All it takes is an athlete who hasn’t read about the impossible, hasn’t believed or experienced the public’s loud doubt as to his chances of doing things never before seen.

So, here we are in the early spring of 2018, wanting any spring-like weather we can find. Finally hearing the faint murmurings from Louisville regarding the now close-at-hand Kentucky Derby and what’s happening in California with the lightly-raced chestnut named Justify.

Where was Justify as a two-year-old? He wasn’t racing. He didn’t race even once. Why is that important? Because only Apollo in 1882 won the Kentucky Derby when he hadn’t raced as a two-year-old.

Apollo may have been an aberration, but it’s been 136 years since his Derby performance shocked the spats, pastel-colored gowns and horsey set.

Few thoroughbreds have ever tried the Kentucky Derby in their debut seasons. Three of them did finish second, but none could duplicate what Apollo had done before the age of electricity, automobiles and the Panama Canal came to the civilized world.

Justify’s first start was on Feb. 18 at picturesque Santa Anita Race Course in Arcadia, California. He ran off from the nondescript field by 9.5 lengths.

His trainer is the loquacious Bob Baffert, and his jockey is the similarly chatty Mike Smith. Neither trainer nor jockey spared words when describing the effort of the first-time starter. Both gushed about his long stride, his being light-footed, his quickness and obvious athleticism.

Could Baffert possibly be aiming his charge at the Kentucky Derby? He knew the history of thoroughbreds without any races as two-year-olds.

“The horse will tell us when he’s ready to race again,” Baffert said.

Speculation was rampant. Would Baffert give him only one more race and then send him to the cavalry charge that is the 20-horse field Kentucky Derby?

Baffert entered Justify in an eight-furlong race over a muddy – but sealed – track at Santa Anita. In his second race, the physically imposing Justify won by 6.5 lengths over another forgettable field. That race was March 11 – time enough for a third race before the Kentucky Derby if Baffert wished for more seasoning.

He must have, because last weekend at Santa Anita, the smooth-striding Justify cruised from a pace-setting lead to a three-length win over well-regarded Bolt d’Oro and five others.

It was a small field, and Justify made the lead without any problems at all. He cruised on ahead on the backstretch as jockey Smith awaited Bolt d’Oro’s late move. When that move came, Justify took several nips from Smith’s whip, pricked his ears and ran off to a 3.5-length win.

That made three races. All were easy-enough successes, and now Baffert has one of the pre-Derby favorites on his hands.

Three races, and a worldwide reaction of seismic proportions.

Justify was a $500,000 Keeneland yearling sale purchase in September 2016. He’s the son of just-retired sire Scat Daddy. He’s built like a auburn locomotive, and his temperament is impeccable for a youngster. A white blaze adorns the front of his alert face. Already an imposing size, he’s likely to add muscle and sinew as time goes by. His knowledge of racing has to increase with more races and more seasoning.

Can Baffert win his fifth Kentucky Derby with such a lightly-raced charger? He’s going to try to chase 136 years of equine history back to the shed rows of yesteryear, and show graybeards and novices alike that history itself never went 10 furlongs inside a cavalry charge to win any year’s most-watched race.