LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Veritable greenhorn Justify won the 144th Kentucky Derby on Saturday evening on a track officially marked sloppy but closer to deluged. He granted a sight that looked very much like greatness and cemented himself as a star after snaring the lead with a half-mile left and keeping it from there. He also rewrote a couple of the rigid sentences and charts of the Derby's monumental record book.
Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Derby after not having raced as a 2-year-old, following at long, long, long last upon the 1882 surprise winner, Apollo. He made his trainer, Bob Baffert, only the second to coax at least five Kentucky Derby winners, inching Baffert past D. Wayne Lukas and Herbert "Henry" Thompson and into second place alone, one shy of Ben A. Jones and the six Jones collected between 1938 and 1952.
And when Justify made sure the stretch charges of Good Magic from the outside and Audible from the rail lacked the mustard to reach his flank or catch his eye, then beat Good Magic by 2½ lengths with Audible another head behind, he had Derby savants presuming him among the most accomplished of the 144 champions.
"I just keep using this word, I don't know why, but he's so above-average," said Mike Smith, who at 52 became the second-oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby.
"He's a superior horse," Baffert said.
"He's so athletic," Smith said. "He gets over the ground so easy. He's able just to keep running."
"His mechanics," Baffert said. "He just covers the ground."
"It takes a lot to try and keep up with him, and then you've got to try to run him down after that," Smith said. "You've got to let a fast horse be fast sometimes."
All of the above meant that after some palpitations over some harrowing early fractions of 22.24 and 45.77, Baffert spent the last 100 yards of the race in another state: awe.
"I knew that last eighth, he was going to win, and I was just in awe of the performance," he said. "I mean, that's the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I've brought up here. He just put himself up there with the greats."
Off as the 5-2 favorite, Justify hurriedly found his way to the brink of the lead, next to the anticipated early pacer Promises Fulfilled. They rounded the first turn of the mile and a quarter together through the rain so persistent it soaked the 157,813 and bordered upon grotesque, and they got to the backstretch before Justify commenced making sure the race would be about him, one way or another.
In a field Baffert called loaded with quality and the "toughest bunch I've ever been involved with," almost nobody came, save for Good Magic and Audible for their peeks in the stretch. Perhaps the biggest mystery and curiosity in a race full of them, the second choice Mendelssohn, wound up last.
It was all heady business given that the 2017 Breeders Cup had passed and the new year had dawned and gotten going and then gone on a good while before Justify even raced.
He began on Feb. 18, then followed on March 11 and April 7, all at Santa Anita and the third one in the Santa Anita Derby in a three-length smash against the strong Bolt d'Oro. In those three races, he had beaten a combined 14 horses. For that maiden race of February, he won by 9½ and Baffert said, "I thought the timer was wrong."
Of note might have been that race March 11, when Justify ran in the mud and seemed to relish it.
Justify's ownership group crowded the interview dais Saturday evening. One of the bunch, former trainer Elliott Walden, who runs WinStar Farm, had to request an extra chair. The mass includes the operations China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm.
"I saw the way [Baffert] looked at the horse [early on] and the way he was acting around the barn," said Solomon Kumin of Head of Plains Partners. "I came back and said, 'This has got to be the real deal.' "