Justify isn’t supposed to win Saturday’s 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. But count me in on him.
He didn’t race as a 2-year-old, and all winners of the Derby since 1882 have had at least one start as a juvenile. He has had just three lifetime starts, so he is spotting a significant experience edge to each runner in the field except Hofburg. He has never shipped to race and in fact has only run over one surface – the Santa Anita dirt. Justify has never taken dirt in his face and he has never raced on the inside of horses.
The son of the late stallion Scat Daddy has shown rare ability winning all three lifetime starts, earning triple digit Beyer Speed Figures each time. He proved in his second career start when stretched out around two turns for the first time that he can rate off a fast pace if needed, as he sat off the pacesetter before pouncing entering the far turn and drawing off to win under wraps.
While it is true Bob Baffert strives to be involved in the Kentucky Derby each year, the Hall of Fame trainer is also willing not to press and make the race with horses deemed not ready for such an ambitious task.
The best examples are Arrogate and West Coast. Arrogate skipped the Triple Crown races before putting on a show in the 2016 Travers at Saratoga and beating the older California Chrome in that year’s Breeders Cup Classic. Baffert decided West Coast wasn’t mature enough to handle the rigors of the Triple Crown campaign last year and instead used the Easy Goer Stakes at Belmont as a steppingstone to his huge Travers win on the way to being named champion 3-year-old.
Justify has the right mind to handle the shipping, and his big strapping frame suggests the more distance the better. He already has superior speed figures, plus he has the most upside in the field. Mike Smith calling the shots in the saddle completes the package.
If Justify drew a decent post Tuesday morning (anything outside post nine would be ideal), I think he will be the one to stop all the chatter about the curse of Apollo and become the eighth unbeaten winner of the Kentucky Derby.
In order of preference (and assuming they draw decent post positions), here are who I feel will be the biggest threats to Justify:
Good Magic: The 2017 Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old colt needed his 2018 debut when third in the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and took a step forward winning the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
He appears to be coming up to a career best race in his third start off the layoff and has enough tactical speed to work out a stalking trip.
Mendelssohn: Like Justify, he is by the sire Scat Daddy and the $3 million yearling purchase is a half-brother to champion mare Beholder as well as top stallion Into Mischief. Mendelssohn won a Breeders’ Cup race last year – the Juvenile Turf – so he has proven he can ship from his Ireland base and win.
The Aiden O’Brien trainee was spectacular winning the UAE Derby in Dubai in his first try on dirt in March and has been pointed to this race all along by his top flight connections.
Going from Ireland to Dubai back to Ireland to the U.S. and winning the Kentucky Derby this year alone would be an astronomical achievement. He may be up to the task.
Below are horses I think can impact the Kentucky Derby Exacta, Trifecta, Superfecta, and Super High Five at a price:
My Boy Jack: Former turf specialist is light on numbers, but his deep closing style fits a race that should have many horses near the early lead.
He gets a top jockey in Kent Desormeaux to work out the right trip. Move him up if the track comes up wet, too.
Bolt d’Oro: He showed his quality winning the Grade I Frontrunner as a 2-year-old. He got a late start this year due to a muscle pull and while Justify was too much in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, this colt never quit trying. He could be the forgotten horse in this Derby.
Hofburg: Like Justify, he has just three lifetime starts, and like Audible his closing style was flattered by a fast pace when 2nd in the Florida Derby. He is improving, though, and his trainer Bill Mott is not one to show up for a free lunch. He is in the race for a reason.
For horseplayers based in the Summerlin area of Las Vegas, there is a new free seminar this year. Starting Friday at 6 p.m. at the Rampart Casino/Resort, my long-time colleague and syndicated handicapper Bob Ike will be the special guest of race and sportsbook manager Duane Colucci in the Cascade Lounge.
Bob does his homework and is terrific at structuring wagers, so make sure to take advantage of his insights and opinions.
Top Play of the Week: Santa Anita, Thursday, Race 5 – Starr of Quality (3 post).
As part owner of this filly, I have a stake in the race. She has been a fish out of water lately as this Cal-bred dirt route condition has not filled since last August. Trainer Bill Spawr was forced to run her against the boys and open company April 1 to get her fit, and now she drops in with her own sex and against state-breds.
Expect major improvement in this race.