LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The rain poured down on the old Kentucky home, and Justify’s trainer was thrilled. If you’re thinking Bob Baffert might have another Triple Crown winner on his hands, you have plenty of company.
His undefeated chestnut colt gave one of the most dazzling Kentucky Derby performances in many years, overpowering 2017 2-year-old champion Good Magic by 2 1⁄2 lengths before a crowd of 157,813 Saturday at a soaked Churchill Downs. By midstretch, it was over, and Baffert and jockey Mike Smith had gone to horse heaven.
“American Pharoah, Arrogate and Justify, these horses are cut from a different cloth,” Baffert said. “I rate Justify as one of my top ones. When he won his first race so easily, I knew he was something special.
“It’s like having LeBron James on your team. If you do, you’d better win the championship.”
The son of Scat Daddy gave Baffert, 65, his fifth 14-karat solid gold Derby trophy, second to Ben Jones’ six. “This was the best Derby performance ever by any of my horses,’’ he said.
The white-haired wizard from Southern California also has won six Preaknesses, and expect Justify’s 5-2 Derby odds to be reversed May 18 at Pimlico.
“Big Money Mike” Smith was euphoric, praising the Lord and thanking his lucky stars for getting to ride a major talent. “I can’t describe how special this horse is, my vocabulary doesn’t have those words,” Smith said. “He was crazy in this slop. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Smith, 52, became the second-oldest jockey to win the Derby. Bill Shoemaker was 54 when he scored on Ferdinand in 1986. Smith, like Baffert a Hall of Famer, is 2-for-24 in the big race.
The only hole in Justify’s resume was his lack of a 2-year-old foundation. No horse since Apollo in 1882 had won the Derby after making his career debut as a 3-year-old. Justify reversed the curse in only his fourth start, making 135 years of history disappear.
He justified all of the hype by blasting through hot, contested fractions and overpowering the best Derby field of this century. Despite going head and head with the rabbit Promises Fulfilled through a quarter-mile in 22.24 seconds and a half-mile in :45.77, Justify had enough left to sprint clear in upper stretch from 9-1 shot Good Magic, who edged late-running Audible (7-1) by a head for second.
“When I saw 45, I got a little nervous,” Baffert said, “but he was doing it so easily. This is such a superior animal.”
After a week of excellent weather, Derby Day was wet for the second consecutive year. The rain forecast for Friday held off until Saturday morning, and it fell hard and relentlessly. Justify coasted in mud March 11 at Santa Anita, so the weather gods were on his side.
Justify ran 1¼ miles in 2:04.20 and paid $7.80 as the Derby’s sixth consecutive winning favorite. He earned $1,432,000 of the $2,192,000 purse, raising his total to $2,098,000 for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains.
Behind the first three came 85-1 Instilled Regard, My Boy Jack, Bravazo, Hofburg, Lone Sailor, Vino Rosso, Solomini, Firenze Fire, Bolt d’Oro, Flameaway, Enticed, Promises Fulfilled, Free Drop Billy, Noble Indy, Combatant, Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn, the 6-1 second choice.
Long Islander Mike Repole co-owns Vino Rosso (ninth) and Noble Indy (17th). In an email to Newsday, Repole said he’s “focused on winning the Belmont” with Vino Rosso.
Strangely, My Boy Jack was hammered down from a 30-1 morning line to 5-1 in the early betting Friday. The mud-loving deep closer went off at 6-1, a serious underlay. He was last early and plodded past tired horses to finish fifth.
Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn were by far the biggest disappointments. Magnum Moon, like Justify, entered unbeaten (4-for-4), but the 13-1 shot never got involved. Neither did Mendelssohn, who couldn’t handle track conditions with which he’d never dealt. The colt trained by Irish genius Aidan O’Brien was considered a serious threat, and he slogged in more than 50 lengths behind Baffert’s latest superstar.
“You just have to enjoy the moment,” Baffert said. “That’s the way I feel right now. I’m just so fortunate to have a horse like this.”