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Can We ‘Justify’ This Derby Hope?

by Jeremy Plonk

February 19, 2018

The smoke had barely cleared from Saturday’s Risen Star at Fair Grounds, El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and Miracle Wood at Laurel Park before a previously unknown sophomore inhaled all the headlines. Justify, yet another in the Cadillac showroom of trainer Bob Baffert, debuted a monstrous 7-furlong winner Sunday in Santa Anita’s second race.

And with that, we have our first genuinely steamed horse of the 2018 Triple Crown trail. Sure, others caught some eyes. But Justify went from zero to hero as fast as a horse can go … not literally on the track, albeit he was super-quick there (7 furlongs in a fleet 1:21.86), but even more so in the court of public opinion.

So here we are, 24 hours later, wondering if there’s any way Justify can be our Derby winner on the first Saturday in May. The Feb. 18 debut sat just 76 days on the calendar in front of this year’s kickoff to the Triple Crown. That’s a day shy of 11 weeks to go from unstarted to unforgettable.

If Justify gets only one more prep race and earns his way into the Derby, he’d be just the fifth horse since 1937 to run for the roses with only two career starts on his resume. The last to do so was also the most successful attempt when Godolphin’s China Visit ran sixth in 2000. Disposal was 18th in 1992, while a pair of 1940s bids netted 9th and 15th-place results. Who knows if the answers lie in the Kentucky Derby Media Guide pages or not?

Baffert still has time to get two more races into Justify if everything goes without a hitch. After all, he could go down the Oaklawn path and be on the exact same pattern as those horses exiting Monday’s Southwest Stakes en route to the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. The 3-race crew has had some limited success over the last century-plus with a 15: 2-0-1 mark. Regret bested the boys in 1915 in her third start and it took until Big Brown in 2008 to follow up with a second score. Curlin pulled off the show finish in 2007 before going on to win the Preakness. Summer Bird was sixth in 2009 before adding the Belmont. That noted, you can see Triple Crown race winners in 2007, 2008 and 2009 who ran in the Derby with only three lifetime starts.

Baffert has never run a two or three-start horse in the Derby. Bodemeister had four going into the 2012 series and wound up running one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby and Preakness series of runner-ups ever seen. But he never started after Old Hilltop. Bodemeister may be a fair comparable to Justify, given the similar connections and late start to his career. He didn’t debut until Jan. 16, didn’t break his maiden until Feb. 11 and then ran in the San Felipe in March and Arkansas Derby in April. Even so, Justify is by contrast a full race and one week behind even Bodemeister’s path.

Curlin perhaps makes an even closer comparison in terms of the rapid ascension required. He debuted Feb. 3, 2007 on Super Bowl Sunday, only 15 days earlier than Justify. He found the Rebel and Arkansas Derby path to his liking, winning both, and made his way to Louisville as a legitimate leading contender in a crop that included Street Sense, Hard Spun and eventually the Oaks-winning filly Rags to Riches. Despite 2007 being one of the great crops of the last 30 years, Curlin earned a classic in the Preakness and was on the board in the Derby and Belmont before becoming a 2-time Horse of the Year. His rapid rise didn’t stunt his career as it did Bodemeister.

To add another layer of possibility, consider that Curlin even had a barn change from Helen Pitts to Steve Asmussen after his debut win, acclimating to a new program, home base and more. Rest assured, Justify won’t be leaping to any new barns from the game’s preeminent skipper of sophomores.

There’s the whole Apollo curse dating back to 1882 since an unstarted 2-year-old won the Kentucky Derby. We get that. Since 1937, that group is 0-59 in the big dance. Bodemeister and Curlin hit the board with second and third-place finishes in the last decade. Baffert is 0-2 vs. Apollo behind Bodemeister and longshot Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude (16th in 2011).

The biggest hurdle for Justify, as it is for all 3-year-olds, is the calendar. You’re only three once on Derby Day. Father Time waits for no one. Any missteps between now and May 5 will be magnified greatly because Justify has nothing else upon which to fall back. He must first come out of this 7-furlong sizzler raring to go; train smartly toward the next step and succeed there; and then repeat this process not once, but twice more going into a final prep and into the Kentucky Derby.

All in all, it’s an awful lot to ask of Justify. But this is an awful exciting prospect.

Time will tell. It always has the last word on the Kentucky Derby.