A little more than 13 hours after he won the Kentucky Derby, Justify was full of himself outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. He looked like he could run another 1¼ miles in the slop.
“He wasn’t really that tired,” trainer Bob Baffert said in the Sunday morning sunshine after he brought his fifth Derby winner out for a few photos. “He ate up last night. Today he’s been a handful.”
Oh, he was that. As Baffert was leading him by the halter back to the barn, Justify cocked his head hard like he wanted to run off again. Why not? He has been a professional racehorse for only 11 weeks. He still has a lot of run in him. We are about to find out just how much as he bids to win the Preakness and – dare we say – a Triple Crown.
“No, not yet,” Baffert said, interrupting any talk of repeating what he did with American Pharoah three years ago. “I’m not thinking that right now. We’ve got another one in a couple weeks. If he gets on the plane he’s ready to roll.”
Oh, he will be ready to roll. Baffert may not have put the Preakness in ink, but he practically had one foot out the barn door to Pimlico. That is where he figures to fly his big colt after one more week chilling out here in Kentucky.
When pressed about a long-range vision for a horse that has only four races in him, Baffert said that Justify has already cleared his tallest hurdle.
“The Kentucky Derby to me is the toughest one,” Baffert said. “If I like the way he comes out of (the Preakness), then we’ll take a shot at the Belmont.”
Despite the testing conditions Saturday in what has been called the wettest Kentucky Derby in history, Justify (5-2) and his Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith were in lockstep with speed demon Promises Fulfilled as they clicked off early fractions of 22.24 and 45.77 for the first quarter- and half-mile. So never mind chasing a blazing pace; Justify could just as easily have set it himself. That was not exactly how Baffert planned it. Make that the Bafferts.
“My wife Jill, she’s sort of tough to watch a race with because she’s sort of negative,” Baffert said. “‘Oh my God,’ she goes, ‘22 and 2. Too fast. Too fast.’ I go, ‘He’s OK. He’s all right.’ Then I saw the clock for the half, and I couldn’t see very well. I said, ‘46 and 4. He slowed it down.’ She says, ‘No. 45 and 4.’ I said, ‘Oh, man. That’s not good. He’s going to lay down, poor guy.’ Then when Good Magic started coming to him, I really thought, boy, that’s a good horse. That’s a champion coming at you.”
That had Baffert harking back to the Derby in 2012, when Bodemeister looked like a gate-to-wire winner until he gave way in the last 150 yards to I’ll Have Another.
“I was thinking this was like Bodemeister,” Baffert said. “It was so much fun until the stretch. But this one, he has so much extra. That’s where the greatness comes in with that powerful body and that big, long stride. I’m sure those other horses were thinking, ‘Dude, I can’t keep up with him.’”
“He couldn’t have been more impressive to me,” said Chad Brown, who trained Good Magic (9-1) to a strong second-place finish. “(Justify) did a lot of the hard work out front, set some very strong fractions on a demanding track and still had enough to kick on at his first try at a mile-and-a-quarter. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where you could beat the horse yesterday.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, whose best finish Saturday was with a hard charge to third by Audible (7-1), echoed the sentiment about Justify. “I think he’s a super impressive horse. He laid down fast fractions and kept going. A big effort.”
Too big, then, for any serious challenge in the Preakness? Brown would not say what is next for Good Magic nor Pletcher for Audible and the rest of his Derby quartet, but they seem unlikely to take their horses to Baltimore.
One Derby also-ran – seventh-place Bravazo (27-1) – will probably be at Pimlico. “I’ll talk to (owner) Brad Kelley,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “He’s pretty game. I’d say we’ll probably go. Lukas also said that Sporting Chance, the front-running winner of last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, would probably be in the Preakness.
Arkansas Derby runner-up Quip had been ticketed for the Preakness, but he is owned by WinStar Farm as is Justify, so that may lead to some second thoughts.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Diamond King, winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, is likely to race in the Preakness, which Baffert has won six times. At this point a seventh victory seems to be little more than a formality, but that is still in the blush of Justify’s heady performance in the Derby.
“We were hoping he had that in him,” Baffert said. “Those great ones they do that. He knows he’s a stud.”
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.