Justify Wins Kentucky Derby, Conquering Rain, Mud and a 136-Year Curse

Mike Smith riding Justify to victory in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Since 1882, when the Standard Oil Trust was formed, Franklin D. Roosevelt was born and the electrical age began with the flip of a switch that lit up one square mile of Lower Manhattan, no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing at the age of 2.

The horse that did it way back then was the chestnut gelding Apollo, named after the Greek god of many things, including the paradoxical powers to both heal and plague. He caught the favorite Runnymede in deep stretch to win by a half-length and earn the heaping sum of $4,560. No one in attendance that day could have predicted how long it would take for another 3-year-old to emerge who did not race at age 2 but would still sniff the roses on the first Saturday in May.

Enter Justify, the undefeated chestnut colt with the big white blaze who had won three straight races in 2018 and is trained by the Triple Crown-winning Bob Baffert. Maybe the curse of Apollo would get the best of him at the Kentucky Derby, or maybe enough was enough, and the right horse had finally come along to send that curse the way of the billy goat and the Bambino.

And on Saturday at Churchill Downs, amid a steady and driving rain, Justify proved he was indeed that horse, fending off Good Magic to win the 144th Kentucky Derby by two and a half lengths in 2 minutes 4.20 seconds, and putting his name right next to Apollo’s in racing lore. Justify also earned a $1,432,000 paycheck for his jockey, trainer and owners, and rewarded his thoroughly soaked backers with $7.80 on a $2 bet to win. Audible finished third.

“I’ve seen all kinds, I mean this guy, he’s just special,” Baffert said. “He has that presence about him.”

It was an emphatic statement coming from a trainer who, in 2015, won the first Triple Crown in 37 years with American Pharoah and who also presided over North America’s richest racehorse, Arrogate.

Saturday’s result, which came in slop that made the race itself more unpredictable, marked the sixth year in a row that the favorite had won the Derby. It was also Baffert’s fifth Derby victory.

He said it did not bother him that 136 years had gone by without a horse unraced at 2 winning the Derby. What did unnerve him a bit, he acknowledged, was that his wife, Jill, chose to wear a green dress on Saturday. In racing, he said, green is thought to be bad luck.

“She pulled it out,’’ he said. “I didn’t say anything. I thought, all right, we’re going to see how good this horse is.”

Justify was ridden by Mike Smith, the 52-year-old ironman who is in supreme shape and, in a career overflowing with success, not surprisingly goes by the nickname Big Money Mike. His other Derby triumph came in 2005 when he scored with the 50-1 shot Giacomo, and this time the challenge was to guide his supremely talented, but woefully inexperienced, mount to victory in a jammed 20-horse field.

Which he did, becoming the second-oldest jockey to win the Derby, behind Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 in 1986 when he won on Ferdinand. “Keep riding horses like this, and you don’t have to work that hard,’’ said a jubilant Smith. “They take care of all the work for you.’’

Justify broke cleanly out of the starting gate — a necessity according to Baffert — and quickly headed to the front of the pack. Promises Fulfilled went to the lead, but Justify never let him get away. In the backstretch, Smith let him relax a bit, but once he asked for Justify’s best around the far turn, the horse responded like a freight train. “Supercharged,” is how Baffert described it.

Chad Brown, trainer of Good Magic, said he was proud of his horse but was unlikely to take another shot at Justify when the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, is held two weeks from now.

Justify is co-owned by WinStar Farm, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and the China Horse Club. WinStar, which won its first Derby when Super Saver romped in the slop in 2010, owns the majority of the horse, and its president and chief executive, Elliott Walden, decided to name him Justify at the suggestion of an assistant. There’s no story, he said, just a good name for a good horse.

The horse’s large ownership group reflects the rise of partnerships across the industry, even among the sport’s most powerful owners. In all, nine of the 20 Derby horses this year were owned by partnerships.

As for the other owners, Head of Plains Partners is run by the hedge fund executive Sol Kumin, who earned his first Kentucky Oaks victory on Friday, when Monomoy Girl netted the first-place check for another of his successful partnerships, Monomoy Stables.

Starlight Racing, a small syndicate run by Jack Wolf and his wife, Laurie, usually invests in unproven yearlings, not 3-year-olds. But the trend to team up, Wolf said, is here to stay.

And then there’s the fourth owner, China Horse Club, the exclusive and secretive group that has become a major global player in the sport in just five years. It won the Oaks last year with Abel Tasman and then one-upped itself with Justify.

“The win today is equivalent to a gold medal in the Olympics,’’ said Teo Ah Khing, the Harvard-educated architect who runs the China Horse Club. Sitting beside him at the postrace news conference was the prime minister of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, where Teo is attempting to develop a horse racing resort in a place where there are no thoroughbreds.

But truly standing out among all the owners was Kumin, who had scored a double, snaring both the Oaks and the Derby in one weekend, the first time any owner had done that in more than 60 years.

When Kumin won the Oaks on Friday, he maintained that nothing could top it. “This feels about as good as it gets,’’ he insisted.

But then came Saturday, and Justify’s triumph. Surely, Kumin now felt differently. After all, his philosophy on teaming with others to buy horses is this: Why buy one when you can buy two? So why win one big race when you can win two?

And perhaps the same will also hold true for Baffert in 2018. Why settle for one Triple Crown when perhaps Justify can bring you another?

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