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Justify is Just Phenomenal, says Baffert

by Jon White

April 12, 2018

Whether or not Justify wins the Kentucky Derby to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to do so without having raced as a 2-year-old, what he already has accomplished is extraordinary.

In the span of just 48 days, Justify went from being an unraced maiden to a Grade I winner in last Saturday’s Grade I Santa Anita Derby. His meteoric rise to stardom began in a seven-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 18. I made him the 6-5 morning-line favorite. The bettors pounded him down to 1-2 favoritism.

During track announcer Michael Wrona’s stretch call of that Feb. 18 maiden race, he said: “Less than three-sixteenths to go and it’s Justify by three or four lengths. Camby, under heavy pressure, can do only as well as second placing behind a very promising type. Justify will justify his odds-on quote with the promise of bigger things to come.”

Wrona was both accurate and prophetic.

Justify next appeared under silks in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Santa Anita on March 11. I made him a heavy 2-5 morning-line favorite. The bettors hammered him down to even heavier favoritism at 1-20.

Wrona’s stretch call: “They swing for home and it’s Justify by four, Shivermetimbers second, Calexeman on the inside is next. Justify coming past the eighth pole would have to race in outer space to feel less pressure. He’s not yet battle-hardened, but just who is the most talented 3-year-old to race this weekend? Justify, a colt of limitless potential, wins by six lengths from Shivermetimbers.”

Wrona’s comment as to just who was the most talented 3-year-old to race that weekend was in reference to the Grade II San Felipe Stakes the day before in which McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro had put on quite a show. At the end of a furious stretch battle, McKinzie finished first by a head, but was disqualified and placed second by the stewards for fouling Bolt d’Oro in deep stretch. Bolt d’Oro was elevated to first.

The Santa Anita Derby originally was to have been a rematch between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie. But McKinzie missed this race and will be absent from participation in any of the Triple Crown events due to what his trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, reported to be a minor hock injury. McKinzie’s setback prompted Baffert to run Justify in the Santa Anita Derby instead of this Saturday’s Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

Oaklawn’s loss certainly was Santa Anita’s gain.

I installed Justify as the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Santa Anita Derby. There evidently were those surprised that I did so inasmuch as he had run in only two races. Even Baffert expressed his opinion about this.

“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.”

Whether to make Justify or Bolt d’Oro the morning-line favorite was a very difficult decision for me. I gave it considerable thought for several days. But I felt there were a couple of big clues that Justify would be the favorite and quite likely odds-on.

On March 11, the day after the San Felipe, Justify was backed down to 6-1 favoritism in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager when it closed. Bolt d’Oro was 7-1. And last Wednesday, when post positions were drawn for the Santa Anita Derby, Justify was the 6-1 Kentucky Derby favorite at the Wynn Race Book in Las Vegas, with Audible and Bolt d’Oro the co-second choices at 8-1. The odds in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager and at the Wynn carried a lot of weight with me because people were actually betting money, as opposed to the odds being merely a person’s opinion.

Nevertheless, as I stated in the Los Angeles Times’ newsletter “Racing!” last Friday, it would not have surprised me if Bolt d’Oro had been bet to Santa Anita Derby favoritism. I made him a close second choice on the morning line at 6-5.

As it turned out, Justify was indeed sent away as the Santa Anita Derby favorite at 4-5, with Bolt d’Oro the second choice at even money. Hall of Famer Mike Smith rode Justify. Fellow Hall of Famer Javier Castellano was aboard Bolt d’Oro.

Justify led past every pole. He clicked off quarters in :23 4/5, :23 4/5, :24 3/5 and :24 2/5 before a final eighth in :12 3/5 for a final 1 1/8-mile time of 1:49 3/5. The 1:49 3/5 clocking would have been faster if not for what Baffert and others have described as a very deep and tiring surface, a view supported by Justify being assigned a 107 Beyer, a figure positively impacted by the slower-than-usual surface as quantified by the track variant. I will further address Justify’s 107 Beyer Speed Figure later in this column.

The Santa Anita Derby fractions posted were :23 4/5, :47 4/5, 1:12 3/5 and 1:37.

In hundredths, Justify’s quarters were run in :23.96, :23.89, :24.76, :24.41 and :12.70 for a final time of 1:49.72.

With Justify leading Bolt d’Oro by a little more than a length on the far turn, this was Wrona’s race call during the final stages of the race: “Around the far turn in the Santa Anita Derby, as prodigious talent matches established class, it’s Justify by a length and a quarter. Bolt d’Oro taking a run at him, but really having to be pushed on by Castellano. Smith looks confident on Justify reaching the top of the stretch. Back in third is Core Beliefs, then Instilled Regard, Pepe Tono. Justify leading past the eighth pole. He’s a couple of lengths in front. Bolt d’Oro is closing on the inside. It’s Justify by three-quarters of a length. Bolt d’Oro trying ever so hard. But Justify, another exhilarating exhibition by the supremely gifted athlete! He’s on a dizzying ascent to greatness, winning the Santa Anita Derby clearly from Bolt d’Oro, followed in by Core Beliefs and Instilled Regard.”

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 had to settle for second. Core Beliefs finished third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Bolt d’Oro.

In the gallop-out after the finish, I thought Bolt d’Oro might again gain on Justify. But the opposite occurred. Justify galloped out with gusto, opening up on Bolt d’Oro while they were making their way to the clubhouse turn.

Monday morning on Steve Byk’s radio show At the Races, Baffert said of Justify’s Santa Anita Derby victory: “He won that on just sheer, raw talent. He’s just a phenomenal talent. This horse just has so many gears. It’s an honor to train a horse that’s so talented…We knew from Day One that he was something special. He was showing me things like [American] Pharoah and Arrogate. It’s very rare to get those kind of horses…I just can’t believe I’ve had American Pharoah, Arrogate and then Justify, three of the best horses I’ve ever had. It’s just unbelievable.”

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.

Justify’s Santa Anita Derby triumph solidified his position atop my weekly Kentucky Derby Top 10 list. He had supplanted McKinzie at the top of the list last week.

Here is my Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week:

1. Justify
2. Mendelssohn
3. Bolt d’Oro
4. Audible
5. Magnum Moon
6. Good Magic
7. Vino Rosso
8. Solomini
9. Enticed
10. Quip


Justify’s Beyer Speed Figure for his Santa Anita Derby performance was 107. It’s the highest among the prospective starters in this year’s Kentucky Derby, surpassing Mendelssohn’s 106 for his 18 1/2-length win in the UAE Derby at 1 3/16 miles at Meydan in Dubai on March 31.

Here is the list of all triple-digit Beyers ever recorded by prospective Kentucky Derby starters:

107 Justify (won Santa Anita Derby on April 7)
106 Mendelssohn (won UAE Derby on March 31)
104 Justify (won Santa Anita maiden race on Feb. 18)
103 Bolt d’Oro (won FrontRunner at Santa Anita last Sept. 30)
102 Bolt d’Oro (second in Santa Anita Derby on April 7)
101 Bolt d’Oro (won San Felipe via DQ at Santa Anita on March 10)
101 Justify (won Santa Anita allowance/optional claimer on March 11)
100 Good Magic (won BC Juvenile at Del Mar last Nov. 4)

It will be interesting to see what kind of figure Justify runs in the Kentucky Derby. Can he keep the streak going and make it four triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in as many career starts? If he does, will it be good enough to win the Kentucky Derby in what appears to be an especially strong class of 3-year-old males this year?

Justify’s 107 in the Santa Anita Derby is tied for the highest in this race since Brother Derek recorded a 108 in 2006. Who was the only other horse since Brother Derek to win the Santa Anita Derby with a Beyer as high as 107? It was California Chrome, who in 2014 did go on to capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before his bid for Triple Crown glory was thwarted when he finished in a dead heat for fourth in the Belmont Stakes.

Who is the last horse to win the Santa Anita Derby with a Beyer higher than 108? It was the Baffert-trained Point Given, who in 2001 won the Santa Anita Derby with a 110 Beyer and then finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby before winning the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell Invitational and Travers en route to being voted Horse of the Year.

According to the American Racing Manual, these are the Beyer Speed Figures for the winner of the Santa Anita Derby going back to 1990:

2018 Justify (107)
2017 Gormley (88)
2016 Exaggerator (103)
2015 Dortmund (106)
2014 California Chrome (107)
2013 Goldencents (105)
2012 I’ll Have Another (95)
2011 Midnight Interlude (97)
2010 Sidney’s Candy (100)
2009 Pioneerof the Nile (97)
2008 Colonel John (95)
2007 Tiago (100)
2006 Brother Derek (108)
2005 Buzzards Bay (98)
2004 Castledale (103)
2003 Buddy Gil (104)
2002 Came Home (96)
2001 Point Given (110)
2000 The Deputy (109)
1999 General Challenge (108)
1998 Indian Charlie (111)
1997 Free House (110)
1996 Cavonnier (104)
1995 Larry the Legend (106)
1994 Brocco (105)
1993 Personal Hope (98)
1992 A.P. Indy (95)
1991 Dinard (108)
1999 Mister Frisky (109)


Since Apollo in 1882, 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners have raced as a 2-year-old.

“But this long streak appears to be in serious jeopardy this year, thanks to a pair of seriously talented colts, Justify and Magnum Moon,” I wrote here in my Xpressbet.com column on March 21.

Magnum Moon runs in Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles this Saturday for trainer Todd Pletcher. Unraced as a 2-year-old, the Kentucky-bred Malibu Moon colt is three for three. Magnum Moon won Oaklawn’s Grade II Rebel Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths on March 17.

Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 61 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to even place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.


Not surprisingly, Justify was the favorite in Pool Four of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) that closed last Sunday. He was 3-1. This was the final KDFW pool for the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

Here were the final odds for Pool Four of the KDFW:

3-1 Justify
5-1 Mendelssohn
7-1 Audible
8-1 Magnum Moon
9-1 Bolt d’Oro
9-1 Good Magic
17-1 All Others
22-1 Hofburg
25-1 Solomini
27-1 Enticed
27-1 My Boy Jack
31-1 Noble Indy
31-1 Quip
42-1 Flameaway
47-1 Free Drop Billy
53-1 Runaway Ghost
61-1 Gronkowski
65-1 Bravazo
66-1 Combatant
78-1 Lone Sailor
104-1 Instilled Regard
285-1 Title Ready
98-1 Promises Fulfilled
Scratched: Mississippi


According to odds released today (April 11) by John Avello, Justify is down to 5-2 Kentucky Derby favoritism at the Wynn Race Book in Las Vegas. The others at under 10-1 are Good Magic (7-1), Mendelssohn (7-1), Audible (8-1), Bolt d’Oro (8-1) and Magnum Moon (9-1).

What is astonishing to me is the Wynn listed Justify at only 8-1 to win the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown! That speaks volumes as to Justify-mania. The others under 100-1 are Bolt d’Oro (25-1), Audible (30-1), Mendelssohn (30-1), Good Magic (30-1), Magnum Moon (45-1), Noble Indy (50-1), Solomini (75-1), Vino Rosso (75-1) and Enticed (85-1).


History shows that the Derby Strikes System that I developed years ago has merit. Only one horse in the last 45 years has won the Kentucky Derby with more than two strikes. That was Mine that Bird, who had four strikes.

My Derby Strikes system consists of nine key factors that attempt to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors are explained at the end of this column.

Keep in mind that 38 of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike. Six of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and Always Dreaming (2017).

Justify has three strikes. Not surprisingly, it’s his lack of a race as a 2-year-old coupled with his lack of experience that triggers his three strikes.

What are Justify’s three strikes? He gets one strike in Category 1 for not having run in a graded stakes race before March 31. He also gets a strike in Category 6 for not having at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby. And his third strike comes in Category 8 for not having started as a 2-year-old.

Justify’s three strikes do shine a light on the difficulty of trying to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old and having made just three lifetime starts. But his athletic prowess is such that it suggests to me that he just might win the roses despite his three strikes. If I believed his three strikes meant there was no way he could win the Kentucky Derby, I would not have him ranked No. 1 on my Top 10 list.

Extraordinary talent enables an athlete to do extraordinary things. I cite Bo Jackson as an example. I once saw Jackson do something extraordinary as a baseball player in the 1980s when he was with the Kansas City Royals. The Royals were playing the California (now Los Angeles) Angels. I was sitting behind home plate when Jackson hit a home run unlike any other I’ve ever seen in person or on television. It was a line drive that was hit so hard it managed to go over the outfield fence despite hardly ever getting any higher than the fence.

Horse racing is no different than any other sport. Extraordinary talent enables an equine athlete to do extraordinary things, perhaps even become the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.

In terms of the Derby Strikes Systems, it’s not until a horse’s next race will be the Kentucky Derby that a horse’s number of strikes can be determined. These are the strikes for the 20 leading Kentucky Derby point earners as listed by Churchill Downs when the leaderboard was updated on April 7, plus Gronkowski, who gets a spot in the field for having the most points in the European Road to the Kentucky Derby:


Audible (Category 6)
Bolt d’Oro (Category 4)
Enticed (0 strikes)
Flameaway (0 strikes)
Free Drop Billy (Category 3)
Good Magic (Category 6)
Mendelssohn (0 strikes)
Runaway Ghost (Category 4)
Vino Rosso (Category 6)


Bravazo (Categories 4 and 5)
Firenze Fire (Categories 3 and 5)
Lone Sailor (Categories 2 and 4)


Gronkowski (Categories 1, 2 and 5)
Hofburg (Categories 1, 2 and 6)
Justify (Categories 1, 6 and 8)
Noble Indy (Categories 3, 6 and 7)
Promises Fulfilled (Categories 4, 5 and 6)

Magnum Moon
My Boy Jack


Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 436 West Coast (26)
2. 326 Unique Bella (4)
3. 296 Accelerate
4. 251 Mind Your Biscuits (4)
5. 143 World Approval (1)
6. 130 Gun Runner (9)
7. 122 Army Mule
8. 112 Roy H
9. 97 Mubtaahij
10. 87 Abel Tasman

Here is this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 424 Justify (21)
2. 358 Audible (6)
3. 335 Good Magic (4)
4. 324 Bolt d’Oro (1)
5. 290 Mendelssohn (12)
6. 214 Magnum Moon
7. 136 Noble Indy
8. 131 Vino Rosso (1)
9. 77 Enticed
10. 71 McKinzie (1)


These are the nine key factors (or categories) in my Derby Strikes System:

1. THE GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming in 2017 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)

2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)

3. THE EIGHTH POLE FACTOR. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

4. THE GAMENESS FACTOR. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION FACTOR. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)

6. THE SUFFICIENT RACING EXPERIENCE FACTOR. (The horse has had at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the needed experience. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Grindstone in 1996, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015 and Always Dreaming in 2017. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming each had made five starts before the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom had made four starts before the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.)

7. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS FACTOR. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)

8. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD FACTOR. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 is the only Kentucky Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. There now have been 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners who raced as a 2-year-old. Through 2017, the score is 142-1 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 61 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to even place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)

9. THE NOT A GELDING FACTOR. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)