by Jon White
January 2, 2019
Inasmuch as the 2019 racing season now has commenced, it is time for my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during 2018. This marks the 15th year that I have compiled such a list for Xpressbet.com.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make my list for a variety of reasons, such as:
--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game in victory or defeat.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
And now, drumroll please, here is my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. during 2018:
10. JUSTIFY in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt April 7. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
The Santa Anita Derby originally was to have been a rematch between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie. Baffert trains McKinzie. But McKinzie missed the Santa Anita Derby due to a hind leg injury. Baffert then called an audible and decided to run Justify in the Santa Anita Derby instead of the Grade I Arkansas Derby a week later at Oaklawn Park as originally planned.
I installed Justify as the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Santa Anita Derby. There evidently were those surprised that I had made a horse to have raced only twice the morning-line favorite for the 1 1/8 Santa Anita Derby. Even Baffert questioned what I had done.
“I can’t believe Jon White made him the favorite. He’s letting his emotions get to him,” Baffert said on the Lousville radio program Inside Churchill Downs.
In the Los Angeles Times, Baffert was quoted by John Cherwa as saying about the Santa Anita Derby morning line: “I don’t see making my horse 4-5. He’s only had two races.”
As it turned out, Justify was bet down to 4-5 favoritism in the Santa Anita Derby, with Bolt d’Oro the second choice at even money.
Justify led from start to finish. He ran each quarter in :23 4/5, :23 4/5, :24 3/5 and :24 2/5 before a last eighth in :12 3/5 for a final 1 1/8-mile time of 1:49 3/5 (1:49.72). The race time would have been faster if not for what Baffert and others described as a very deep and tiring surface, a view supported by Justify being assigned a 107 Beyer, a big figure that reflected the slower-than-usual surface as quantified by the track variant. Justify’s 107 would turn out to be the highest Beyer of his six-race career.
I wrote this about the Santa Anita Derby: “Bolt d’Oro took not one, but two runs at Justify in the final three furlongs. For Justify, in just his third lifetime start, to turn back two serious challenges by the more seasoned, more battle-tested and classy Bolt d’Oro is further proof that Justify is super special.”
Justify won by three lengths. Bolt d’Oro finished second.
Two days after the Santa Anita Derby on Steve Byk’s radio show At the Races, Baffert said that Justify “won that on just sheer, raw talent. He’s just a phenomenal talent. This horse just has so many gears.”
I wrote this following the Santa Anita Derby: “You know what’s really scary? Baffert and Smith both have expressed the view that Justify is still learning and that there is room for further improvement. This is very bad news for those who will be trying to beat the grand-looking Kentucky-bred Scat Daddy colt on May 5 in the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles.”
As it turned out, they not only were unable to beat Justify in the Kentucky Derby, they also couldn’t beat him in the Preakness and Belmont.
9. CITY OF LIGHT in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at one mile on dirt Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. (Owned by Mr. and Mrs. William K. Warren Jr.; trained by Michael McCarthy; ridden by Javier Castellano.)
Going into the BC Dirt Mile, much attention was focused on Catalina Cruiser, undefeated in four career starts in Southern California while winning by margins of 2 1/4, 2 1/4, 6 3/4 and 7 1/4 lengths. Those 6 3/4-length and 7 1/4-length victories had come in Grade II races at Del Mar. I heard more than one person say they would have picked Catalina Cruiser to win the BC Classic if he had run in that race instead of the BC Dirt Mile.
Not surprisingly, Catalina Cruiser was hammered down to 4-5 favoritism in the BC Dirt Mile. City of Light, who had trained splendidly, went off as the 5-2 second choice and was my pick to win in my Breeders’ Cup selections for Xpressbet.com.
City of Light darted to the early lead. While setting the pace, he recorded fractions of :22.64, :45.16, 1:09.03 and 1:20.97. Three in front with a furlong remaining, City of Light maintained a daylight advantage the rest of the way and won by 2 3/4 lengths in a sparkling 1:33.83.
Catalina Cruiser? He did not get off to an alert start, raced close up early, then faltered after six furlongs to finish sixth, 17 1/2 lengths behind City of Light.
8. ACCELERATE in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. (Owned by Hronis Racing; trained by John Sadler; ridden by Joel Rosario.)
Accelerate won the richest Breeders’ Cup race, the $6 million Classic, by one length as the 5-2 favorite while defeating 13 rivals after breaking from post 14.
Some have expressed the view that Accelerate did not beat much. But while I believe it was not the strongest BC Classic field ever assembled, I think it was a pretty darn good one. Accelerate defeated seven multiple G1 winners (Thunder Snow, Yoshida, West Coast, Mind Your Biscuits, McKinzie, Catholic Boy and Roaring Lion) and three G1 winners (Mendelssohn, Discreet Lover and Pavel).
7. ENABLE in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles on turf Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. (Owned by Juddmonte Farms; trained by John Gosden; ridden by Frankie Dettori.)
Found was the first horse to win both Europe’s most coveted race, the Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and the BC Turf. She took the 2015 BC Turf, then won the 2016 Arc before finishing third in the 2016 BC Turf.
The magnificent 4-year-old filly Enable in 2018 became the first horse to win both races in the same year.
Prior to 2018, seven times an Arc winner had come to this country to run in the BC Turf that same season. All seven times they had lost.
These are the Arc winners to have started in the BC Turf the same year:
2017 Enable (1st in BC Turf)
2016 Found (3rd in BC Turf)
2015 Golden Horn (2nd in BC Turf)
2007 Dylan Thomas (5th in BC Turf)
1992 Subotica (5th in BC Turf)
1990 Saumarez (5th in BC Turf)
1987 Trempolino (2nd in BC Turf)
1986 Dancing Brace (4th in BC Turf)
Following Enable’s brilliant performance as a 3-year-old to win the Arc by 2 1/2 lengths at Chantilly in 2017, she was not retired. Her main 2018 goal was to try for a second Arc victory.
But a knee injury precluded Enable from racing in 2018 until she won the Group III September Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths at 1 1/2 miles on a synthetic surface at Kempton on Sept. 8. With just that one 2018 race under her belt, Enable subsequently won another Arc, this time by a neck when having to stave off the onrushing 3-year-old filly Sea of Class. Keep in mind Enable won her second Arc on Oct. 7 despite being sick for a time after her Sept. 8 race in England.
Gosden then shipped Enable to the United States for the BC Turf. Backed down to 4-5 favoritism, Enable was fanned extremely wide coming out of the final turn. Dettori later explained that he kept Enable so wide in the belief that the ground was better toward the outside of a grass course that was not firm. The Equibase chart listed the course as “good” for the BC Turf.
Despite racing so very wide, Enable won by three-quarters of a length in 2:32.65. Magical gave it a marvelous try, but ultimately had to settle for second. There was a huge gap of nine lengths back to Sadler’s Joy, who finished third in the field of 13.
6. ACCELERATE in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Aug. 18. (Owned by Hronis Racing; trained by John Sadler; ridden by Joel Rosario.)
Accelerate annihilated them.
Close up early while sitting in third, Accelerate took the lead going into the far turn and quickly widened on the bend. Eight lengths in front with a furlong to go, he continued to increase his advantage while coming down the lane.
“And it is all Accelerate, clear by double figures with a sixteenth of a mile to go!” Del Mar track announcer Trevor Denman said during his stretch call.
Accelerate ultimately reached the finish 12 1/2 lengths in front. It was largest margin of victory in the 26-year history of the race, obliterating the record of 8 1/2 lengths that had been set by Game On Dude in 2013.
After completing his Pacific Classic trip in 2:01.83, Accelerate returned $2.80, the lowest win mutuel in the history of the race. The previous record had been $3 when Gentlemen won in 1997.
Accelerate joined Lava Man (2006) and Game On Dude (2013) as the only three to win Southern California’s three major events for older horses -- Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup at Santa Anita and Pacific Classic -- in the same year. All three races are contested at 1 1/4 miles.
5. NEWSPAPEROFRECORD in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at one mile on turf Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs. (Owned by Klaravich Stables; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.)
Lady Eli was undeniably one of the best female grass runners we have seen in this country during this decade. A multiple Grade I winner, she won 10 of 14 lifetime starts and was voted a 2017 Eclipse Award as champion female turf horse.
But as good as Lady Eli was, I don’t think she was as good as Newspaperofrecord, who won all three of her 2018 races in superlative fashion. As I wrote after the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, Newspaperofrecord appears to be an enormously talented young filly. To me, she looks like a 2018 version on the grass of Landaluce in 1982 on the dirt.
Landaluce in 1982 won her first three races by margins of seven, 21 and 6 1/2 lengths. Newspaperofrecord in 2018 has won her three races by margins of 6 3/4, 6 1/2 and 6 3/4 lengths.
Sadly, after Landaluce won two more races in 1982 by 10 and two lengths, she died that year on Nov. 28 from a severe bacterial infection. An autopsy showed that Landaluce succumbed to Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E. coli. From the first crop of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Landaluce was voted a 1982 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly.
Newspaperofrecord’s 6 3/4-length triumph at the Breeders’ Cup was breathtaking. On a grass course that was not close to firm (listed as “yielding” by Equibase), she led all the way. In front by a commanding 5 1/2 lengths with a furlong to go, she was “geared down through the final seventy yards while proving much the best,” according to the Equibase chart.
On the same card, Line of Duty was all out to win the Grade I BC Juvenile Turf for colts and geldings by a half-length. He completed 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:40.06. Newspaperofrecord, though far from all out, put a final time of 1:39.00 on the board. Line of Duty was credited with an 83 Beyer Speed Figure, much lower than Newspaperofrecord’s 96.
Jerry Brown is the owner of Thoro-Graph. As I have said many times, I consider Thoro-Graph’s figures to be superior to Beyer Speed Figures.
Newspaperofrecord is “clearly the best 2-year-old grass filly we have seen since we started making figures,” Jerry Brown said.
4. GUN RUNNER in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Jan. 27. (Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Florent Geroux.)
In Gun Runner’s final 2017 start, he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic by 2 1/4 lengths at Del Mar on Nov. 4. I ranked it as the top performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2017. Gun Runner was voted 2017 Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year and champion older male.
Gun Runner raced one more time before being retired to stud. He made his farewell under silks in the world’s richest race, the $16 million, Pegasus World Cup, early in 2018.
Sent off as an even-money favorite in the Grade I event, Gun Runner had the misfortunate to draw post 10, which is dreadful at Gulfstream because of the abbreviated run to the first turn.
Off alertly, Gun Runner was a pace factor from the outset. Despite the middle part of the race being demanding in that the second quarter was run in :23.20 and the third quarter in :23.60, Gun Runner bounded home in the stretch to win by 2 1/2 lengths in an excellent 1:47.41. Finishing second was West Coast, while Gunnevera ended up third in the field of 12.
“I’m so impressed for him to come through like he did today, to overcome the draw,” Asmussen said after Gun Runner’s Pegasus victory. “I’m just so proud of the horse. What a special horse. It’s the cherry on the top, this one.”
When Gun Runner won last year’s BC Classic, he was assigned a career-best 117 Beyer Speed Figure. He recorded an even higher Beyer in the Pegasus, a 120. The 120 ranked as the biggest Beyer Speed Figure recorded in 2018.
3. JUSTIFY in Pimlico’s Grade I Preakness Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on a sloppy main track May 19. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
When American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown in 2015, the race he came the closest to losing of the three was the Kentucky Derby, which he won by one length. He then won the Preakness by seven lengths and Belmont by 5 1/2 lengths.
When Justify swept the Triple Crown in 2018, the race he came closest to losing of the three was the Preakness, which he won by a half-length. But Justify’s performance was a whole lot better than his margin of victory suggests. He never got a breather at any point during the entire 1 3/16 miles. Few horses can win any race, let alone a Triple Crown race, without ever getting a breather.
Good Magic and jockey Jose Ortiz took it to Justify right away. The next day on Mike Willman’s radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles, Smith talked about how the Preakness early on turned into a match race between Justify and Good Magic.
“After we went underneath the wire the first time, the race was on,” Smith said, adding that it pretty much was a match race “from all the way down the backside, around the [far] turn, until I finally put him away [in the final sixteenth].”
Smith went on to say that in the final sixteenth, after they had put away Good Magic, he was trying to ask Justify as little as possible while still winning the race.
“I peeked under my shoulder and didn’t see anybody,” Smith said. “I just wanted to get him home safe and sound. I didn’t want to get after him or make him do any more than he had to do. And maybe I was trying to save him a little too much. I made it a little closer than I liked to. But the good ones find a way to get it done. It takes a whole lot to do what he did. That was his fifth race. That’s pretty incredible.
“If I had kept my foot on the gas, he would have won by farther. I had Good Magic beaten. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anyone to come flying the way the [D. Wayne] Lukas horse [Bravazo] did. [Bravazo] ran a tremendous race.”
This year’s Preakness long will be remembered for being run in a rather eerie London-like fog. As for the condition of the track, Smith said it was “very slippery, very slick.” Smith said Justify was “slipping a lot” while having to “fight with Good Magic” for most of the race. Smith also said that more than once, Justify jumped tracks that were on the wet surface.
“They pull a ramp over [the track] so the people can walk back and forth [into the infield] and that leaves these tracks,” Smith said. “And man, he jumped the tracks crossing under the wire the first time.”
A wonderful photo tweeted by Barbara Livingston showed Justify from a head-on angle with all four of his legs off the ground as he was jumping the tracks coming through the stretch the first time.
Smith said Justify also “jumped some tracks on the backside.”
It was evident that the inside paths were the worst part of the track all day at Pimlico. The jockeys rode every main-track race as if an invisible rail existed a few paths out from the actual rail.
Good Magic and Ortiz were several paths away from the inside rail on the backstretch while racing to the inside of Justify and Smith.
“He kept floating me out, floating me out, floating me out,” Smith said of Ortiz.
Rather than hold his ground, Smith said he allowed himself to be continually floated out because he “was trying not to get into any kind of a bumping match” and that he “was trying to stay clear and clean.”
While many were disappointed that Justify did not win by more than he did, Smith was impressed that the colt was able to prevail when tested more than he ever had been before.
“This is a horse who was in a dogfight for a good seven-eighths of a mile and still held off the competition,” Smith said. “We should be commending him and not looking at him winning by only half a length. He showed more to me than drawing off and winning by 10. That was very impressive for him to get into a dogfight and prevail. We’ve seen him draw off and win so many times that you didn’t know what would happen when someone looked him in the eye.”
2. JUSTIFY in Belmont Park’s Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on dirt June 9. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
One of the many reasons Justify never tasted defeat during his racing career is he pretty much would do whatever his rider wanted him to do during a race. A prime example of this occurred when he led past every pole and won the Belmont by 1 3/4 lengths to join the exclusive club of 13 Triple Crown winners.
When the rider decided it was time to step on the gas pedal, Justify accelerated. And Justify would do so without getting headstrong or rank. He would do it willingly. Conversely, when the rider felt it prudent to ease off on the gas pedal, Justify would decelerate. And when asked to slow down, Justify would not exhibit the resentment that one sometimes will see from a fast runner who detests being rated.
There really could be no better cooperation between a horse and rider than what existed between Justify and Mike Smith in the Belmont Stakes. Smith felt it necessary to utilize Justify’s speed away from the gate. Consequently, Justify stepped the first quarter in :23.37, which was pretty quick so early in a 1 1/2-mile race.
But after that initial quarter, when Smith decided it would be prudent to ease off the gas pedal, Justify went along with the idea. The big colt got into a nice, comfortable rhythm while clicking off a second quarter in :24.74 and third quarter in :25.10.
After that :25.10 quarter, Smith then asked Justify to go quicker, which the 4-5 favorite readily did by going his fourth quarter in :24.88 and fifth quarter in :24.81. Justify ran the first 1 1/4 miles of the Belmont in 2:02.90. That put him two lengths in front at the quarter pole.
With a furlong to go, Justify still led by two lengths. After Gronkowski’s tardy start, he trailed early, 14 lengths off Justify’s pace. Gronkowski rallied strongly to reach second and loom a threat at the eighth pole.
Justify was able to hold Gronkowski at bay throughout the final furlong. Justify ran his sixth and final quarter in :25.28. The final time was 2:28.18.
In the Belmont Stakes, Justify:
--Completed a sweep of this country’s Triple Crown, just the 13th horse to achieve this coveted feat and only the second horse to do it in the last 40 years.
--Became the first horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown without having raced as a 2-year-old.
--Set a record for defeating the most opponents in the Belmont of any Triple Crown winner.
--Broke the record for defeating the most total starters in the three races of any Triple Crown winner.
These are the number of opponents each Triple Crown winner defeated in the Belmont Stakes:
9 Justify (2018)
7 American Pharoah (2015)
7 Seattle Slew (1977)
7 Citation (1948)
6 Assault (1946)
6 War Admiral (1937)
4 Affirmed (1978)
4 Secretariat (1973)
4 Omaha (1935)
3 Whirlaway (1941)
3 Gallant Fox (1930)
2 Count Fleet (1943)
2 Sir Barton (1919)
This is how many starters combined each Triple Crown winner defeated in the series:
35 Justify (2018)
32 War Admiral (1937)
31 American Pharoah (2015)
31 Assault (1946)
29 Seattle Slew (1977)
28 Omaha (1935)
27 Gallant Fox (1930)
24 Sir Barton (1919)
21 Secretariat (1973)
20 Affirmed (1978)
20 Whirlaway (1941)
15 Citation (1948)
14 Count Fleet (1943)
1. JUSTIFY in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles on a sloppy main track May 5. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Television commentator Randy Moss articulated just how outstanding Justify’s performance was by observing that no horse in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby had won it after running the first quarter as fast as he did.
Justify was breathing down Promises Fulfilled’s neck when that rival set a torrid early pace, with the opening quarter in :22.24 and half in :45.77. Those fractions certainly took a toll on Promises Fulfilled, who faltered badly. He finished 15th and lost by 39 3/4 lengths.
Keep in mind Promises Fulfilled is not a bum. He was good enough to win Gulfstream Park’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths at 1 1/16 miles in early March. Promises Fufilled would go on to win Saratoga’s Grade II Amsterdam Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on July 28, Saratoga’s Grade I H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at seven furlongs and Keeneland’s Grade II Phoenix Stakes at six furlongs.
But even though Justify ran so fast early in the Kentucky Derby, he still was able to flex his considerable muscles in the homestretch and maintained a clear lead throughout the final furlong. He won by 2 1/2 lengths in 2:04.20.
Good Magic finished second. He ran his heart out all the way down the stretch while trying to close the gap on Justify. Good Magic was the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 2017. Good Magic won Keeneland’s Grade II Blue Grass Stakes in early April and had trained sharply up to the Run for the Roses.
For Justify to stave off such a quality foe during the final furlong is another reason this was such a terrific performance.
Justify became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 since Apollo in 1882. He thus thumbed his nose at the so-called “Apollo curse.”
After “Big Money” Mike Smith rode Justify in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the Hall of Fame rider was asked by Bill Finley which of the three victories was the most impressive.
“I think it was the Kentucky Derby because those were the fastest fractions and he actually set them along with the Dale Romans horse, Promises Fulfilled,” Smith said in a June 19 story written by Finley in the Thoroughbred Daily News. “There have been faster fractions, I believe, in the Derby, but none of those horses went on to win. He set those fractions and won.”
And so it is that I rank Justify’s Kentucky Derby victory as the best 2018 performance by a Thoroughbred in this country.
I am sure there are those who are of the opinion that some other 2018 performance was the best by a Thoroughbred in this country. Others may question whether Justify’s Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Preakness should rank 1-2-3. After all, he did not break a track or stakes record in those three races. He did not win those races by huge margins. His speed figures won’t knock your socks off. But an important component of this annual list always has been the historic context of a particular performance. Justify’s Triple Crown sweep without having raced as a 2-year-old was unprecedented. I think such an achievement not only merits considerable praise, it lends additional significance to each of those three performances.
These have been my top performances of the year going back to 2004:
2004 Ghostzapper in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2005 Afleet Alex in the Grade I Preakness Stakes
2006 Barbaro in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2007 Rags to Riches in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2008 Big Brown in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2009 Zenyatta in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2010 Blame in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2011 Animal Kingdom in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2012 I’ll Have Another in the Grade I Preakness
2013 Dreaming of Julia in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks
2014 Wise Dan in the Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap
2015 American Pharoah in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2016 Arrogate in the Grade I Travers Stakes
2017 Gun Runner in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2018 Justify in the Grade I Kentucky Derby