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Kentucky Derby hopeful Justify flies at Santa Anita

3-year-old cruises to 6 1/2-length victory under Mike Smith

Considering he had just been given a three-day suspension for a bumping incident in the San Felipe Stakes the day before, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was in a giddy mood on Sunday after riding the rising Kentucky Derby hopeful Justify to a 6 1/2-length victory in an allowance race at Santa Anita.

“Extremely impressive,” Smith said of the 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy trained by Bob Baffert. “He really passed the two-turn test with flying colors. For a young horse, he’s got a great mind that might allow him to catch up sooner than a normal horse might take.”

Justify won his earlier start by 9 1/2 lengths. There are handicappers saying he’s “American Pharoah good,” referring to Baffert’s Triple Crown winner of 2015.

“I hate to compare him to other horses right now, but doesn’t he remind you of an Easy Goer back in the day, a big old red horse with a big, powerful stride,” said Smith, who will serve his suspension at a later date.

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Baffert was out of town on his way to a horse sale in Florida. He now has three top candidates for the Kentucky Derby in Justify, McKinzie and Solomini after having zero horses entered in last year’s Kentucky Derby. His big task will be trying to separate them and gain enough points for them to run on the first Saturday in May.

Smith was put on Justify for the first time on Sunday. Justify ran the mile on a sloppy track in a sizzling 1:35.73. Told of the time, Smith said, “My lord. Very blessed.” He removed his muddy cap and offered a kiss to the sky.

Justify made an eye-catching move around the final turn and pulled away. Shivermetimbers was second and Pepe Tono third in the five-horse field. Justify went off as such an overwhelming 1-9 favorite that he produced a $14,691.54-minus pool for the win.

“He switched leads naturally, opened up his strides and was two in front,” Smith said of the move. “I didn’t ask him. He just did that. He came off the turn like it was a stroll.”

And consider this from Smith. “Believe it or not, there is room to improve,” he said.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Follow Eric Sondheimer on Twitter @latsondheimer


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