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Justify makes his Scat Daddy proud

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Justify_Benoit_photo
Justify, ridden by Mike Smith, won his stakes debut Saturday with a decisive finish in the Santa Anita Derby, stamping his place in next month's Kentucky Derby. (Benoit photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park)

Arcadia, Calif.

If there is a betting angle on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail that has been overlooked and underrated, it may bloodlines. Especially when they trace back to one Scat Daddy.

Justify did his part to maintain that trend Saturday while living up to his billing as the best 3-year-old in Bob Baffert’s talent-laden barn. Grabbing the lead right from the start of only his third race, Justify (9-10) almost effortlessly cruised to a three-length victory over triple graded-stakes winner Bolt d’Oro (11-10) in the $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, clinching him a place in the gate May 5 at Churchill Downs.

“He’s a beast,” Baffert said. “I’m just glad I have him. He’s exciting like Mendelssohn. They’re both Scat Daddys.”

Of course Mendelssohn’s 18¼-length victory last weekend in the UAE Derby had to resonate, especially since Baffert was there to see him blow away the field and qualify for Churchill Downs. Flameaway is another Scat Daddy colt that assured himself a trip to Kentucky with a second-place finish to Good Magic in Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes. And with at least a third-place finish next weekend in the Arkansas Derby, Combatant would make four Scat Daddy progeny in the run for the roses in four weeks.

There was extra pressure on Justify to deliver Saturday. He came into the race the 9-2 Derby futures favorite at the Wynn Las Vegas and the 7-2 William Hill co-favorite. But since it was his stakes debut, failure to finish in the top two would have shut him out of Kentucky. Now he will be trying to become the first Derby winner to go without a 2-year-old race since Apollo in 1882.

“We’re always hoping,” Baffert said. “As a trainer we’re always talking like this could be it. He showed us in the mornings that he’s just different. He does it effortlessly, but he can’t be going too fast early.”

That was a brief concern Saturday for Baffert and jockey Mike Smith when Justify ran out to a premature, three-length lead midway through the nine-furlong feature. Smith blamed it on a distraction in the infield.

“I don’t know if he saw the umbrellas and everyone screaming,” Smith said. “He got to looking at them so much that I had to get the bit out of his mouth to really make him pay attention. That’s when he kind of skirted away and focused.”

Despite the burst of speed, Justify’s times of 47.85 and 1:12.61 for the first half- and three-quarter mile were not exactly scorching on a fast track that Baffert said was deep and testing. Going into the final turn Javier Castellano was scrubbing hard to keep Bolt d’Oro within 1½ lengths of the lead. The whole time Smith was sitting chilly on Justify. When he loosened the reins in the stretch, there was no doubt who would win. In victory Justify was clocked at 1:49.72.

“I didn’t think the fractions were real, real fast,” Bolt d’Oro’s trainer Mick Ruis said. “We knew we were up against it a little at a mile-and-an-eighth and that we would have an advantage when he goes longer. Hopefully we’ll come out of here really good and get that mile-and-a-quarter.”

Ruis had the luxury of knowing that Bolt d’Oro had already qualified for Kentucky with last month’s controversial win over the disqualified and now injured McKinzie in the San Felipe Stakes. With Saturday’s runner-up finish, Bolt d’Oro will be rematched next month with Justify, Good Magic and perhaps Solomini, the only active horses that have defeated him.

As for the high expectations for Justify – expectations that Baffert helped to raise – he admitted, “We’ve still got a long way to go. You still need a lot of luck. At least we have a chance to dream a little bit. I dream in black and white. The owners dream in Technicolor.”

Good Magic rebounds to win Blue Grass

After a disappointing third last month in the Fountain of Youth, Good Magic (8-5) rediscovered the form that earned him the 2017 2-year-old championship with his decisive stretch run to win the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes.

“The horse had the race he needed before this,” Good Magic’s trainer Chad Brown told NBCSN. “He was a lot fitter and stronger for it.”

Jockey José Ortiz kept Good Magic in mid-pack early before moving forward on the backstretch. In the turn for home he came into stride with Flameaway (5-1) before pulling away for the victory in 1:50.18 for the nine furlongs on a Keeneland track that dried out to “fast” after morning snow.

Free Drop Billy (6-1) was awarded third and, with it, a trip to the Kentucky Derby, after he was cut off late in the stretch. Sporting Chance (7-1) had crossed third but was demoted to fourth after the left-handed whip of Luís Sáez caused him to make a fierce right turn into Free Drop Billy’s path.

Vino Rosso survives stewards to win Wood

Coming off a listless fourth last month in the Tampa Bay Derby, Vino Rosso (4-1) outdueled the favored Enticed (6-5), enduring a bumpy ride and a stewards inquiry to win the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial, sending him to the Kentucky Derby.

Sired by two-time horse of the year Curlin, Vino Rosso got a wide, off-the-pace trip around the track from jockey John Velázquez before hooking up with Enticed at the top of the stretch. Velázquez drifted Vino Rosso hard to the inside, banging into Enticed. Runner-up rider Júnior Alvarado claimed foul, but the result was allowed to stand.

“They take them down a lot more often with less than that,” Enticed’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “We got hit pretty hard twice and lost our action behind. I thought they could have put us up.”

“I got close to him, and he was coming out,” Velázquez said. “So I made my horse switch leads, and when he switched I leaned on him a little bit. Then he pushed me out, and my horse went right back on him.”

Trained by Todd Pletcher, Vino Rosso won with a time of 1:49.79 for the nine furlongs on a fast track, the quickest time in the Wood since 2014. It was Pletcher’s fifth time winning Aqueduct’s biggest race and Velázquez’s fourth.

Before Saturday, Enticed already had enough points to qualify for Kentucky, and McLaughlin said “I’m sure there will be no change” in plans to go to Churchill Downs.

Baffert’s shipper Restoring Hope (7-2) was third most of the race, and that is where he finished. He needed to be in the top two to get to the Derby.

Forty may not be enough to reach Kentucky

The mathematics were never there. Now the reality of what could happen in next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby and the addition of a foreign path to Louisville mean that 40 qualifying points from prep races may not be enough to get into the Kentucky Derby.

Right now Hofburg (40 points), Firenze Fire (39) and Solomini (34) are 17th, 18th and 19th in the standings. Gronkowski was assured of one of the 20 places in the gate via the new European road to the Derby, taking one place away from the U.S. trail.

A win in the Arkansas Derby is worth 100 points, second 40, third 20 and fourth 10. With that in mind consider this possibility: If Title Ready (5 points) and/or a horse with no points were to finish one-two in the Arkansas Derby, and if Combatant (22) finished third, then Hofburg and Firenze Fire would not make it to Churchill Downs. Solomini is assured of advancing if he finishes at least fourth.

Even if Hofburg were tied with the runner-up at Oaklawn with 40 points, the tiebreaker is total earnings. Arkansas pays $200,000 for second, $8,000 more than Hofburg has earned.

The Arkansas Derby is one of two points preps left on the Derby trail. The other is next Saturday’s Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, a race that is worth 20-8-4-2 for first through fourth.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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