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Lightly raced Justify early Kentucky Derby favorite

Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Justify, talks to trainer

Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Justify, talks to trainer Bob Baffert, right, while cooling off the horse, who won the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, 2018, in Arcadia, California. Credit: AP / Jae C. Hong

He’s as flashy looking as a horse gets, a big, powerful chestnut with a broad white blaze all the way down his face. His name is Justify, and before his debut Feb. 18 at Santa Anita, hardly anyone had heard of him. Knockout wins in his first three races changed that, transforming a rookie into the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

His front-running victory over highly rated Bolt d’Oro in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 7 vaulted Justify to No. 1 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s 3-year-old poll. It also guaranteed that this photogenic specimen will be the hot attraction on Churchill Downs’ backstretch during Derby week.

“What you’re seeing right now is just raw talent,” his rider, Mike Smith, said. “He’s got so much room to grow and get even better, believe it or not. If he moves forward off this race, which he should, then it’s kind of scary to even talk about.”

Besides Justify’s immense potential, the talk will be about The Curse of Apollo, named for the 1882 Derby winner, the last one who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. Not even two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, whose resume entering the 2007 Derby closely resembled Justify’s, could overcome history. In the past 135 years, the 61 Derby horses who didn’t run at 2 produced three seconds, five thirds and dozens of hard-luck stories.

As for why Justify didn’t race last year, trainer Bob Baffert said he doesn’t know. “When I got him [in December], I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “He came in from Keeneland and was in great shape and pretty far along. They never told me why he was late to the races. I am just very fortunate that I have him.”

No one can prepare a horse for the classics better than Baffert, who guided American Pharoah to the 2015 Triple Crown.

“The Derby is a brutal race,” said Baffert, who has won it four times. “But Justify is a natural and he’s still green, just learning how to run. He’s so talented. He reminds me of Point Given, just a big, red train. He’s quick and light on his feet. This last race will really move him up.

“But there are a lot of nice horses out there this year.”

Mick Ruis, Bolt d’Oro’s trainer, sees similarities between Pharoah and Justify. “I look at that horse train and I remember American Pharoah before he went to the Derby. I’d never seen a horse move more fluidly than American Pharoah. And you look at Justify, he is about as smooth as you want in a horse.”

Yet talent alone doesn’t win the Derby. Point Given, the 2001 Horse of the Year, took the Preakness and Belmont for Baffert that spring after finishing fifth as the Derby favorite. Like Curlin, a future superstar found the big race too tough, and unlike Curlin, Point Given had a strong 2-year-old foundation.

Mark Casse trains Flameaway, whose second in the Blue Grass will send him to Louisville. “I know there’s a lot of talk about the California horses,” Casse said. “And they are good, take nothing away from them, but they’re running in five- and six-horse fields. When you run in the Kentucky Derby, it’s a different deal.”

Justify’s combined margin is 19 lengths, but he’s outrun only 14 opponents, five fewer than he’ll likely face at Churchill. Can he navigate a 20-horse rodeo while encountering serious pace pressure for the first time?

Despite his relative lack of experience, many will take a short price and bet that Justify can overcome a trend that has lasted 135 years. Eventually, it’s going to happen. No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament were 0-for-135 against No. 1s until Maryland-Baltimore County shocked Virginia and everybody else. As Mark Twain wrote, “There is nothing that cannot happen tomorrow.” So you never can tell. Maybe tomorrow will come May 5.

New York Sports