By: Elisabeth Grandstaff
Red roses. Wide-brimmed hats. Bugle calls. Horses thundering down the homestretch as thousands of fans cheer for their favorites. This is the greatest two minutes of horse racing. This is the Kentucky Derby—where the taxing 6-week road to the Triple Crown begins.
On May 5, with rain pouring over the soggy track at Louisville, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, three-year-old Justify bolted out of the gate with such confidence and valor that he quickly took the lead. Mud slung with each horse’s gallop as 20 three-year-olds bounded down the track. Although some may have yielded to the difficult conditions, Justify seemed to thrive. As the finish line neared, the massive Kentucky-bred colt lengthened his stride and thundered down the stretch to become the 144th winner of the Kentucky Derby, with a time of 2:04.2.
In addition to winning the coveted $2 million purse and the esteemed title of Kentucky Derby champion, Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Derby without racing as a two-year-old. In doing so, he broke what superstitious fans refer to as a 136-year curse.
“The curse of Apollo” as it’s called, harks back to the year 1882 when the three-year-old Apollo defeated the field of horses in the Kentucky Derby after not having raced as a two-year-old. Since the era of Apollo, 61 horses who did not race as two-year-olds have competed in the Derby. All 61 fell short. By breaking the curse, Justify’s victory has notably raised the bar in horse racing.
Justify is co-owned by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing. His veteran trainer Bob Baffert is no stranger to Derby victory. Baffert has won five so far, having also trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh.
Justify has racing greatness in his blood. His grandfather Johannesberg went unbeaten as a two-year-old before placing eighth in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. His father Scat Daddy was one the U.S.’s most sought-after sires, who also had three other sons in this year’s race. As a racer, Scat Daddy won the Champagne Stakes, the Florida Derby, and the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and was the third betting choice when he entered the Kentucky Derby. He finished 18th, however, when he found himself in a bottleneck and bumped by another horse. This caused him to suffer a tendon injury from which he never recovered.
Although history stood against him, the horse world saw potential in Justify. This athlete was the favorite heading into the 2018 Derby, despite his having only raced three times before. As Derby day approached, the odds of Justify’s winning increased—but so did doubt.
Commentators pointed to valid reasons why the odds would likely be proven wrong.
In “5 Reasons Why Justify Won’t Win the Kentucky Derby,” Derek Simon of US Racing pointed to the favorite’s inexperience. Justify had “never faced more than six rivals in his three-race career.” What’s more, since 1992, horses with fewer than five career starts were 2-for-43 in the Kentucky Derby.
Then there was the curse.
“Think about that,” Simon reminded readers. “In 1882, Tesla was an actual person instead of an overpriced car and movies didn’t exist at all.”
In USA Today, Dan Wolken explained the disadvantages of Justify’s inexperience that would likely cost him the race.
From seeing and hearing a well-lubricated crowd of more than 100,000 humans to the inherent chaos of navigating a race with 19 other horses, there is nothing normal about the experience. Some are impervious to the sensory stress and run their race. But many horses, even some who went on to become champions, encounter enough difficulty to run poorly that day — or, in the case of a horse last year named Thunder Snow — refuse to run at all.
The colt’s inexperience, coupled with the horrible weather conditions on May 5, seemed to test fate; potentially setting the horse up to repeat his father’s career-ending mishap.
Justify, however, did not shy away from the intimidating field of challengers, the rainfall, and the noise of the 157,000 attendees. He carried the odds and beat the fate, and it will likely be a long time before he retires from racing to siring.
“It takes an incredible athlete…especially (in those) track conditions,” noted Baffer. “He had every reason to lay down, (but) he just kept on going.” When asked what made it incredible, Baffert responded, “It was deep, the track was tiring… The main ingredient, essentially, of a great horse is speed, and the second most important is more speed, and that’s what we saw today.”
Justify remains undefeated. But having only raced four times in his life, questions arise again if he will be able to withstand the challenge of another race in two weeks. He now heads to Pimlico in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Only 12 former racing champions have ever won the Triple Crown since Sir Barton in 1919.
Justice jockey Mike Smith now has two Derby wins and will be looking to bring his Preakness Stakes wins to two also.
He would probably prefer no other horse with which to try.
“This horse has the ‘it’ factor,” Smith said of Justice. “I saw him work when I first arrived here and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m looking at American Pharoah.’”