First there was the visit, then the lie, and finally the injury — three sets of circumstances that helped chart the course for Justify, who is ready to take his second step toward a Triple Crown in Saturday's Preakness Stakes.
Things can easily go wrong in horse racing, and the timing for late-developing colts is even more tricky. There is no margin for error.
So it was quite the surprise when trainer Bob Baffert visited the office of Santa Anita racing secretary Rick Hammerle in early February to inquire about a maiden race.
"I remember it was 9:30 or 10 and Bob casually walks in and asks, 'How's that second race going?' " Hammerle said. "Now, Bob rarely comes by at entry time, so I asked him what was going on. It was so unlike him."
Hammerle told Baffert that there were only four horses entered but added he wasn't worried. The race would fill.
Baffert then pulled Hammerle to the side.
"I have a horse in there that can win the Kentucky Derby," Hammerle recalled Baffert saying.
"My jaw just dropped," Hammerle said. "I never heard anyone ever say that about a first-time starter in February. I kept it to myself like it was privileged information."
Baffert was right to have some concern about the race. Only five horses entered, the minimum to run a race.
"I told [co-owner] Elliott [Walden] that if we win this maiden race, there is an allowance that would be perfect," Baffert said. "And then maybe we can take one shot and throw him in the deep end in Arkansas. I was thinking Arkansas [Derby] because we had McKinzie in the Santa Anita Derby."
So, on Feb. 11, Drayden Van Dyke was aboard Justify as he won his first race by 9½ lengths. And the colt wasn't even trying. That's when the Kentucky Derby buzz started.
"After that race I texted him, 'Silence is golden,' " Hammerle said.
The attention that race brought left Baffert and the horse's connections with a problem. How do you find a race for him that will fill, because all the other owners and trainers will be ducking the colt?
Then came the lie.
"I told Elliott that nobody can know that he's running," Baffert said of the allowance. "So, Elliott told everyone that he was running at Sunland. That was our fake duck. So, we entered and everyone vomited when they saw the entries. But that's just the way it works."
The Sunland subterfuge made a lot of sense. The quality of horses was lesser and probably a good match for a second-time starter. Plus, it was worth 50 points for the win, which would automatically qualify Justify for the Kentucky Derby.
But the move also brought an odd training schedule. Two weeks after the allowance race — meaning six weeks before the Kentucky Derby — would it be better to train Justify up to the first Saturday in May, with six weeks off, or to go to Arkansas three weeks after Sunland, and then the Kentucky Derby three weeks after that? In the end, it didn't matter.
Even Hammerle didn't know of Baffert's plan until the end.
"They did a great job of smoke-screening," Hammerle said. "This is a racetrack, and once there is even a hint of something they figure it out. The riders would want to know why Mike Smith wasn't open for that race.
"It carded with eight [horses]. When the horse was put in, I thought we better draw this race right away. I was glad I didn't know about it; took a lot of the pressure off."
You knew the horse was something because Smith replaced Van Dyke for his second race. It went with only five horses. There were three scratches and people can speculate if it was the presence of Justify or the muddy track that cut the field size. He won by 6½ lengths.
"They understood the magnitude of what we were up against as far as the timing thing," Walden said of the Santa Anita officials. "He had to run that weekend. So, they helped us get the race to go. Then it came up muddy. And it was probably a blessing that it was mud that day, because he handled it well."
And he did the same in the Derby.
The final bit of serendipity for Justify came when McKiznie came up with a rear leg injury and came off the Derby trail.
"I knew we had two really good horses," Baffert said. "And then, I was in Dubai and we were getting ready to go out to dinner. Everything was going well. And I got a call from [assistant] Jimmy [Barnes] that McKinzie had a problem.
"When you get that call that your horse is injured … it just rips your soul."
It opened a spot for Justify to run in the Santa Anita Derby, which he won by three lengths.
"It's been shown that four weeks, four weeks, four weeks, works," Hammerle said. "That second [allowance] race was the catalyst. It gave him that extra little bottom."
Baffert singled out Hammerle for thanks at the post-Derby news conference.
"I think that was just Bob's way of thanking Santa Anita," Hammerle said. "I didn't do anything special.
"In my mind he was always going to run in the Santa Anita Derby. He was going to run here. Well, and the rest is history."
With a chance to make more history Saturday.