The 144th Kentucky Derby is shaping up to be a whale of a race.
Three major prep races in the books on Saturday afternoon pumped up the Derby field scheduled to race a classic mile-and-a-quarter on Saturday, May 5.
In the most anticipated race of the day, the undefeated Justify ($3.80) went gate-to-wire to win the Santa Anita Derby over the NTRA's No. 1 ranked 3-year-old Bolt d'Oro by three lengths. The son of Scat Daddy completed the 1 1/8-mile trek in 1:49.72 and earned 100 Derby qualifying points and a gate on the First Saturday in May.
It was only the third career race for Justify, who made his first start on Feb. 18, the same date that last year's 3-year-old champion West Coast made his debut. The difference is that Justify is heading to Louisville, wherein West Coast skipped the Triple Crown trial before winning the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby for trainer Bob Baffert.
It was Baffert's eighth career win in the Santa Anita Derby, a record. None of his previous seven winners won the Kentucky Derby. Justify will attempt to break the longest curse in racing with a win at Churchill Downs. The last horse to win without a start as a 2-year-old was Apollo, in 1882.
"What you saw today was raw talent," jockey Mike Smith told NBC Sports Network after the race. He noted that it was the first time Justify had run while the infield was open and that his colt was distracted momentarily during the race, before getting him back on point. He'll have 150,000 of his closest friends on hand on May 5, so "we'll have to work on that" will be an interesting exercise for the lightly raced colt.
In Lexington, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion rebounded from his Fountain of Youth performance to capture the Blue Grass Stakes. Good Magic ($5.20) held off Ontario-bred Flameaway to capture the 100 Derby points by 1 1/2-lengths at Keeneland. The son of Curlin completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.18.
The win vaulted the 2-year-old Eclipse winner to the top of the Derby leader board with 134 points and with a solid race under his belt heading down Route 64 to run under the twin spires. Enticed is safely in the race with 103 points sitting sixth on the list one point behind Bolt d'Oro.
Flameaway gave another gutsy effort for trainer Mark Casse, who earlier in the week said he could still run in the Queen's Plate later this summer after he completes the Derby trail. I can't see him being a factor at Churchill, but opportunities to run in the first leg of racing's Triple Crown can be few and far between. Hopefully he can come out of the Derby sound so he can grace southern Ontario and western New York with his presence later this summer.
At Aqueduct, the only favorite of the day was defeated when the Todd Pletcher-trained Vino Rosso ($10.40) stormed away with the Wood Memorial after some bumping in the stretch with Godolphin's Enticed. After a lengthy steward's inquiry, Vino Rosso stayed up and Pletcher has his fourth Derby hopeful joining Noble Indy, Magnum Moon and Audible.
Vino Rosso completed the nine furlongs in 1:49.79, winning by three lengths over the favored Gotham winner.
"This was the performance we were looking for," said Pletcher. "We made the equipment change and put the blinkers on. We felt that we kept seeing a horse that has a lot of talent. We thought the mile-and-an-eighth was something he was looking for," said Pletcher.
Next weekend's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park will conclude the 170-point races and will decide the fates of several horses currently sitting on the bubble in the last three or four spots.
With last weekend's monster run by Mendelssohn, a potential Apollo curse breaker, a horse named Gronkowski and the two best 2-year-olds all heading to Louisville, this year's Run for the Roses promises not to disappoint.