Justify entered Saturday’s 144th running of the Kentucky Derby as the favorite contender. But, he faced stiff competition from a talented field of 19 other three-year-old thoroughbreds. Plus, the weather looked to make the race a toss-up. And, Justify faced a Kentucky Derby “curse” that had prevailed for 136 years.
Trained by Bob Baffert (hall of Fame trainer of, among other equine stars, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah), Justify didn’t compete as a two-year-old. This is unusual for American racing thoroughbreds who usually become accustomed to the track and competition via baby steps in their second year. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after not having competed as a two-year-old was Apollo in 1882, leading to the theory of the “Curse of Apollo.”
But, on Saturday, Baffert’s strategy for Justify paid off. The thoroughbred athlete’s first competition and win took place just this past February at Santa Anita, followed by two more wins, including April 7’s Santa Anita Derby.
In the Santa Anita Derby, Justify defeated Mick Ruis’ Bolt D’Oro who, at the beginning of 2018, was considered the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby. Bolt and Justify weren’t supposed to meet until Kentucky. But, an injury to Baffert’s other leading three-year-old, McKinzie, left an opening in the Santa Anita Derby for Justify.
Saturday’s weather at Churchill Downs looked like it could bust the race results wide open. Over three inches of rain came down during the race day, soaking the 157,813 fans in attendance and turning the main track into mud soup.
But, when the gates opened, the race played out much as had been predicted. Longshot Promises Fulfilled went to the lead, setting a quick pace. Justify, guided by jockey “Big Money Mike” Smith, settled into a close second, while Bolt D’Oro and Good Magic alternated between third and fourth.
Justify powered past Promises Fulfilled at the second turn and didn’t look back. In the final stretch for the finish, Justify continued outpacing the competition. Good Magic, with Jose Ortiz aboard, placed at 2 ½ lengths behind Justify. And third went to Audible, ridden by America’s top jockey, Javier Castellano.
Having broken the Curse of Apollo, the racing world will wait to see how Justify will handle the pursuit of the Triple Crown. Next up is the Preakness, where he will most likely face fresh, new competitors.