Spectators watch Promises Fulfilled, ridden by jockey Corey Lanerie, and Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, lead the field into the first turn during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Promises Fulfilled on the rail and Justify on the outside begin to churn around the first turn during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Mike Smith guides Justify down the homestretch ahead of the field during the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, nears the finish line ahead of Audible (5) and Good Magic (6) during the Kentucky Derby on Saturday(Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)
With the Chuchill Downs spires in the background, Mike Smith rides Justify to victory in the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Morry Gash / Associated Press)
Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Jockey Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Jockey Mike Smith poses with Justify for a photo in the Winner’s Circle after winning the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)
The first time trainer Bob Baffert saw Justify work, he knew he had something special. He let his mind drift to a comparison he never thought he would make. Could this be the next American Pharoah?
Saturday, over a sloppy track still taking on water, Justify took the first step toward the Triple Crown with a dominating performance to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
“I didn’t want to say it,” Baffert said to the comparison to American Pharoah, the Triple Crown winner in 2015 . “I didn’t want to jinx myself but I knew I had something really special. He had to prove it [Saturday and he did.]”
The winning margin over second-place Good Magic was 2 ½ lengths but it could have easily been more. Justify did the one thing he needed to do, get out of the gate cleanly. He then set up on the outside of Promises Fulfilled, sometimes drawing even, and sometimes drifting a head back, until entering the far turn in the 1 ¼-mile race.
That’s when he surged ahead, face still clean from never having mud splashed his way.
The wet crowd of 157,813 yelled and screamed as Good Magic made a run, and then Audible did likewise, but it was to no avail.
This was the first time since 1945 that the race was run in the rain and few watching seemed to mind.
The race started with the first quarter-mile in 22.24 seconds, very fast.
“I looked under my arms a couple of times and the rest of them were right behind me,” said jockey Mike Smith, who won his second Kentucky Derby. “I figured if I was going fast, they were going fast with me.”
Also, near the front was Bolt d’Oro, Justify’s rival in the Santa Anita Derby. He hung around near the front until entering the stretch when he faded badly to 12th place.
“Justify went out faster than us and he kept going,” said Mick Ruis, Bolt d’Oro’s owner and trainer.
“Look what that horse did to this field. …That horse has a legit chance to go all the way.”
The field was considered one of the best in more than a decade.
“This is the toughest bunch that I’ve ever been involved in,” said Baffert, who won his fifth Kentucky Derby, second only to Ben Jones’ six. “There’s some really good horses in there. That last 100 yards, that last one-eighth, I knew he was going to win, I was just in awe of the performance. That’s the best Kentucky Derby winning performance I’ve brought up here. He just put himself up there with the greats.”
A woman shows off her hat before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Fans make their way to the grandstand at Churchill Downs before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
A woman passes the wagering windows at Churchill Downs before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
A woman protects her hat and dress with a plastic cover before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
A woman and her hat are silhouetted before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
A woman makes her way across a brick pathway during a soggy morning before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
Plastic cover for hats and head was part of the day before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Matt Lowe of Des Moines, Iowa., poses for a photo with his rose-inspired hat before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
Polka-dot hats stand out under their plastic covering before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
A woman keeps a grip on her drunk and hat as she makes her way to the grandstand before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
A woman hangs onto her hat while covered by a pancho before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Ricky Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, displays his race-inspired jockey’s cap before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
An ornate hat of pink plumes is worn by a woman before the 144th Kentucky Derby(Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for Chruchill Downs)
With drink in hand, a woman walks around Churchill Downs before the 144th Kentucky Derby.(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
Justify’s win also put an end to the Curse of Apollo. No horse that was unraced as a 2-year-old had won the Kentucky Derby since Apollo did it in 1882. Saturday’s race was only Justify’s fourth lifetime, all this year.
“The curse thing, I wasn’t worried about,” Baffert said. “I just wanted to make sure we did everything right. My whole team, everyone was in sync and focused. … When we get a good horse, we know what to do.”
There were many horses that were expected to challenge Justify for the win.
Mendelssohn, who won the UAE Derby in Dubai by 18 ½ lengths, was third favorite and finished last in the 20-horse field.
My Boy Jack, the most explosive closer and second favorite, was 16th with a quarter mile to go and rallied to finish fifth.
Magnum Moon, undefeated in four starts, finished 19th.
Todd Pletcher, in addition to Audible (third) and Magnum Moon (19th), had starters Vino Rosso (ninth) and Noble Indy (17th). He won last year with Always Dreaming.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the race was Instilled Regard, Santa Anita-based and trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. He was the longest shot on the board at 85-1 but finished fourth.
Going off as the 5-2 favorite, Justify paid $7.80, $6.00 and $4.40 in a win-place-show pool in excess of $62 million.
Justify will be headed to Baltimore for the Preakness in two weeks, the second leg of the Triple Crown. How many will want to go against him in such a short turnaround is unclear. Especially if they can wait five weeks to run in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg.
Ruis has already ruled Bolt d’Oro out of the Preakness.
Justify has a large ownership group of the China Horse Club, in only its third year of racing in the U.S., WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. It made for a crowded dais after the race, but all eyes were on Baffert.
While the trainer wasn’t concerned about the Apollo Curse, he had this nagging feeling about his wife Jill’s dress.
“I didn’t tell my wife,” Baffert said. “But she brought out this beautiful green dress today. Green is actually bad luck in horse racing. I’ve been told never wear green. … When she pulled it out, I said ‘All right, we’re going to see how good this horse is.’”
He got his answer. And it was a positive one.