LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This century has seen the end of its share of sports curses.
Another one bit the dust in the Kentucky Derby.
Late Saturday afternoon in dismal weather conditions, a freaky horse named Justify lifted another one under the rain-soaked Twin Spires at historic Churchill Downs.
In 2004, the Curse of the Bambino was lifted when the Boston Red Sox finally emerged with a World Series title. In 2016, the Curse of the Billy Goat was overcome when the Chicago Cubs finally returned as major league champions. A certain Triple Crown drought ended in 2015.
On Saturday afternoon, a curse that has lasted since 1882 fell during the Run for the Roses, when Justify won the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Not since a horse named Apollo, who did not run at the age of two, has a horse crossed the wire first in the Derby.
The so-called Apollo curse has been the handicapper’s friend for over 136 years. Don’t ever bet on the horse without a 2-year-old foundation many proclaim. This year there was two in the field (Magnum Moon was the other) and Justify was even the favorite going into the race.
In a steady rain that would not give in all afternoon, the son of Scat Daddy triumphed over a sloppy racetrack in America’s greatest race in just his fourth career race. His first race was on Feb. 18, just 77 short days ago.
How good is this horse?
Trainer Bob Baffert, who won his fifth Derby, knew he was on to something after his second race. “We saw something really great. That’s greatness right there. When he won his second race we were in (American) Pharoah territory,” said Baffert. “This is the best performance I’ve ever put up here (on the Kentucky Derby),” said Baffert.
Baffert’s biggest concern during the week leading up to the Derby was getting out of the gate well. Justify has had a history of breaking slow and then recovering based on his natural athletic ability.
It was no issue on the first Saturday in May, as he broke sharply for jockey Mike Smith, handled the fast, early fractions and glided to victory over the slop. “It was a sigh of relief when I got him out of the gate and I just stayed out of his way,” said Smith.
Smith added a second Derby win to his Hall of Fame resume, his first came in 2005 aboard 50-1 long shot Giacomo. He continues to win the big money races at the age of 52, staying in tremendous shape and obtaining mounts on the best horses.
The win was his seventh in the classics (Derby, Preakness and Belmont), and he now has a horse that could eventually carry him to his first Triple Crown. Earlier in the week he shrugged off the pressure of riding the favorite. “When you’ve been riding for this many years for these type of opportunities; if you’re not nervous, you’re not ready,” said Smith.
Describing the first time he rode Justify, Smith knew he had a special horse under him. “It was freaky, we were on a muddy racetrack, and he made up three lengths on a horse like that, and I mean he opened up and I was like ‘what the heck was that,’ " said Smith.
After turning for home with the lead, Good Magic, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion, moved up to challenge, but Justify never let him get a whiff of the lead. Good Magic jockey Jose Ortiz found some trouble early in the race and was forced to go around Bolt d’Oro, losing ground to the eventual winner.
Ortiz, gracious in defeat, was quick to praise the winner. “He was in command the whole time. He never let me really get close to him. He’s a nice horse. My horse gave me everything he had, but second best,” said Ortiz.
Trainer Chad Brown was looking for his first Derby with the 2-year-old champion and gave credit to his jockey for holding on for second place. “We knew going in that Justify looked like a big monster and we didn’t want to be too far away,” said Brown. “Jose executed it perfect.”
Audible closed late on the inside to just miss second, finishing third for trainer Todd Pletcher, who had won two previous editions of the race on off tracks. Jockey Javier Castellano, still looking for his first Derby, described the difficulty trying to get Audible to come behind in the slop.
“It’s hard to come from behind on this type of a track. I’m disappointed for my horse, but he still ran a good race and almost got second place,” said Castellano.
“I thought he finished the best of everyone,” said Pletcher of Audible. “Didn’t seem like too many horses closed all weekend. He was one of the only horses to make a good, late run.”
When asked about the winner, who put up a speedy half-mile time of 45.77, Pletcher lamented that he didn’t run into the trouble that a chaotic 20-horse Derby can produce.
“We knew he was the horse to beat, and he never had a straw in his path which is to his credit, he did that for himself,” said Pletcher. “We were hoping he had to overcome a little adversity. He broke sharply and put himself in a good spot.”
Pletcher had nothing but accolades for the winner. “He’s an awfully good horse. He’s got that high cruising speed and he just keeps going. Bob’s done a great job with him,” said Pletcher.
It marked the seventh year in a row that a winner of one of the 100-point prep races emerged to win the Derby. It was the sixth straight year that the favorite won the Kentucky Derby, a streak that may never be topped.
Justify was the first Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Derby since California Chrome in 2014.
It’s on to Pimlico in two weeks for the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, where the distance is a sixteenth-of-a-mile shorter than the Derby and where Justify will be the heavy favorite.
Baltimore has been good to Baffert, where he’s won the Preakness six times. Justify would give him a record-tying seventh, a race that his previous four Derby winners have gone on to win.
“It really hasn’t sunken in yet,” said Baffert. “I’m really fortunate to have a horse like this.”
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.