China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm’s Justify may have been a bit late to this year’s Kentucky Derby (GI) party, but proved he certainly should be one of the guests of honor after winning the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (GI) by three easy lengths. Under regular jockey Mike Smith, the Bob Baffert-trained son of the late, great sire Scat Daddy let at every call through splits of :23.96, :47.85, 1:12.61 and 1:37.02 and though briefly challenged by runner-up Bolt D’Oro in mid-stretch, continued on strongly, if not a little greenly, to the wire to claim the victory in a final time of 1:49.72 over a fast main track.
In his stakes debut, the flashy colt earned 100 points to guarantee a start in the May 5 Kentucky Derby (GI). His record now stands at 3-3-0-0, $666,000. He must now face the infamous “Curse of Apollo” and defy history to become the first Derby winner who was unraced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
“He rides with room to grow,” Smith said. “He’s learning and it’s the first time he rides with the infield open, I don’t know if he saw the umbrellas and everyone screaming that he got to looking at them so much that I had to get the bit out of his mouth to really make him pay attention and that’s when he kind of skirted away and focused. What you’re seeing right now is really just raw talent. He’s got so much room to grow and to even get better, believe it or not. I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him. He handled a [1 1/8-mile race] really well and, like I said, what you’re seeing right now is just raw talent. If he moves forward off of this race, which he should, then it’s even kind of scary to talk about.”
As the public’s 4-5 choice, Justify was worth $3.80, $2.20 and $2.10. Dual Grade 1 winner Bolt D’Oro returned $2.20 and $2.10 at just more than even money, capping off the $2.70 exacta. Longshot Core Beliefs was good for $4 at 41-1 and the 50-cent trifecta paid $9.80.
Instilled Regard, Pepe Tono, Orbit Rain and Jimmy Chila completed the order of finish.
“There was concern down the backside when he took off like that,” Baffert said. “I was worried about him. Mike let him run a little bit but he said [Justify] saw something in the infield and he sort of spooked. He said I might want to put a little more bit on him to control him, and I told Mike he better start working out between now and [the Kentucky Derby] to hold him down.
“It was very exciting. Those are two really tough horses. I figure that race for Bolt D’Oro probably took a little bit out of him with McKinzie [in the San Felipe on March 10], but they’re two really good horses. I think the whole field is really tough
“But Justify is just a natural and he’s just learning how to run. He has that big, beautiful stride, he reminds you a lot of Point Given, just a big, red train type of horse. He’s quick and he’s light on his feet. It’s just good that he showed up, he did what we thought and were hoping he was going to do. I just feel fortunate to have him. It takes a lot of the sting out of what happened to McKinzie. It’s a tough business but we’ve just got to keep going.”
After the race, Bolt D’Oro was bleeding from what appeared to be a grabbed quarter on the outside of his right front foot. Trainer Mick Ruis’ assistant, Jose DeLima, noticed it and pointed it out to trainer Mick Ruis’ daughter, Shelbe, who quickly notified her dad.
“I don’t know how bad it is, I have to get back to the barn and see,” Ruis said.
Hopefully the injury won’t be sufficient enough to keep the son of Medaglia d’Oro out of the Run for the Roses. Jockey Javier Castellano remained proud of the colt, while complimentary of the winner.
“We were second best today.” Castellano said. “I wouldn’t change anything. I have no complaints and unfortunately, we were second best today. He felt great, perfect. He felt good, and did everything the right way. He broke well out of the gate and unfortunately we were running against the best horse in the country.
“I told Mick that it was a very good race. The best horses in the country showed up today and gave a great performance. This was Justify’s game plan and it suited him, his ability to be able to go to the lead. I had to try and catch him today. I think it will be interesting in the Derby because I think there will be more speed, it will be interesting. It will suit my horse, he’ll be able to sit off that faster pace but I’m still very satisfied with today and my horse’s performance.
“It was emotional turning for home because I’m trying to catch the best horse in the country and I’m thinking, ‘I’m happy. I’m very pleased. Justify has the ability to go to the lead, has a lot of speed and he took it easily today.”