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Another year, yet another favorite wins the Kentucky Derby

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

justify_1
Justify dominates down the stretch of the 144th Kentucky Derby.
© USA Today Sports Images

Louisville, Kentucky

It is getting be simple, isn’t it? Just wait to see which horse is the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and bet on him.

Nothing stops them, right? Not a silly 19th-century curse. Not a steady rain that made meteorologists look like the throng that drinks the UAE Derby Kool-Aid every year. And this year not even a blinding early pace designed to troll the favorite and all others to chase it and wilt.

Justify (5-2) lived up to the lofty expectations put on him by his Hall of Fame trainer. Bob Baffert would tell visitors to his Santa Anita barn that he had the next Derby winner – even before the über-talented colt set foot in his first race. That was only 76 days ago.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith pushed Justify into the lead going into the final turn, withstood a brief challenge from 2017 juvenile champion Good Magic (9-1) and cruised to a 2½-length victory that was the sixth in a row for a Derby favorite. Good Magic got the photo for second, holding off the strong close of Audible (7-1) by a head.

The winning time was 2:04.20, the slowest in eight years, but close to average for the eight times the Derby track has been listed as sloppy.

Instilled Regard (85-1) overcame a rough start closed strong to finish fourth, making the winning $1 Superfecta bet worth $19,618.20. Heavily bet because of his win in the slop in the Southwest Stakes, My Boy Jack (6-1) finished fifth to make the $1 Super High Five win worth $183,580.20.

Two other short-priced horses were left far behind. After racing in third through the first mile, Bolt d’Oro (8-1) wore down in the stretch and finished 11th.

Mendelssohn (6-1), the most ballyhooed UAE Derby winner to come to Kentucky, had trouble getting his feet at the start and was crushed by traffic angling in from the auxiliary gate (see Instilled Regard above). Jockey Ryan Moore eased Mendelssohn midway through the race, and they crossed under the wire in last place.

Mendelssohn’s loss maintained another curse – the curse of Sheikh Mohammed. Since 2000  his UAE Derby has sent 14 horses from Dubai to Churchill Downs. None has finished better than fifth.

Up front, Smith’s strategy Saturday seemed daringly simple. Just keep Justify on the flank of pace-setter Promises Fulfilled (49-1) until one of them dropped. But after getting his second Derby win in 24 tries, Smith said that was not the plan at all.

“I was actually slowing him down,” he said. “I was leaning back on him probably more than I normally would. He’s so athletic. He gets over the ground so easy. You have to try and keep up with him.”

Never more than 1½ lengths off the lead and occasionally with a nose in front, Justify stayed close to Promises Fulfilled’s blinding first quarter-mile of 22.24 seconds and first half-mile of 45.77. Just after the clock ticked to 1:11.01 for three-quarters, Smith hit the accelerator going into the final turn.

“Promises Fulfilled is a fast horse, but he’s never seen a horse like Justify,” said Baffert, who now has five Derby victories. “This horse is just a big horse, but his mechanics ... He just covers the ground. These horses are like humans; they know when they’re in over their head.”

As Corey Lanerie and Promises Fulfilled went into a retreat that left them to finish 15th, jockey José Ortiz and Good Magic ran past, trying to catch up to Justify. But Smith got to the rail first, and Good Magic could not make up the ground between them. As it was he had to hold on by a head to fend of Javier Castellano and a mud-caked Audible.

Gone then is the 136-year curse of Apollo, the only Derby winner before Saturday that had not raced at age 2. Justify is now 4-for-4 in his 11 weeks of racing with $2 million to show for it. Sired by the late stallion Scat Daddy, he is the second Derby winner in a row to arrive here with points from only one prep race; Always Dreaming did it last year through the Florida Derby.

The curse of the favorite on bettors trying to find value continues. Since the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system was established for the 2013 Derby, the top betting choice has won every year.

“The horses that earn their way in are good horses,” Baffert said. “Justify is a superior horse. Arrogate, American Pharoah – those are superior horses. I’m just lucky that I have had them.”

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Kentucky Derby week at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted every Friday at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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