Kentucky Derby Preview: Justify Headlines Unusually Crowded Field of Contenders

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LOUISVILLE — At a few minutes past nine Thursday morning at Churchill Downs race track, Fred Mitchell wandered into Bob Baffert’s office inside Barn 33. It’s not an office, really. It’s what’s called a tack room, where things like saddles and bridles are stored when horses and riders aren’t using them. And it’s barely Baffert’s; he spends nearly all of his time in California. But for a few hours a day, on a few days every year, it’s Baffert’s office. Outside, it was uncommonly windy for a spring morning, and warm, with dust plumes scooting along between the dozens of long barns, portending rainstorms that never arrived.

The characters: Baffert is the famous (but because it’s horse racing, not too famous) white-haired thoroughbred trainer, the only horse trainer that most Americans could identify, if not by name. (Okay, maybe D. Wayne Lukas, too. Maybe. If he was on a horse, wearing a white Stetson). He is a celebrity during Derby week, endlessly posing for photos and signing pictures of himself or of himself with American Pharoah, the horse he trained, and who three years ago won racing’s first Triple Crown since 1978. He is here with two starters in Saturday’s 144th Kentucky Derby: Likely favorite Justify and longshot Solomini, who is owned by Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat, but, says Baffert, “needs something to happen to get up there. Needs a defensive back to fall down.”

Mitchell and his wife, Nancy, own Clarkland Farm, a 400-acre breeding farm in Lexington, 70 miles east of Louisville. They bred Mendelssohn, who is likely to be one of several talented horses lined up high on the tote board behind Justify. Mendelssohn was sold for the life-altering sum of $3 million at a 2016 yearling sale and has spent most of his career in Ireland with trainer Aidan O’Brien, who Baffert calls, “The best horse trainer in the world.” Here Mitchell walked the two steps up from the Barn 33 shedrow into the tack room and named, not Justify or Mendelssohn, but another horse.

“What do you think of Hofburg?” said Mitchell.

Hofburg is another talented Derby horse, owned by Saudi prince Khalid bin Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms and trained by veteran Bill Mott. But Hofburg has run only three races in his life. So Baffert shook his head. “Too lightly raced,” he said, in theory dismissing Hofburg. But not really. Then Baffert fell silent and waited for the punch line to land. Because: His Justify has also run only three races in his life, and didn’t race at all in 2017, as a two-year-old. No horse who did not race as a two-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882, the so-called “Apollo curse.” Mitchell first smiled and then laughed.

So here was the 2018 Kentucky Derby distilled to a single, inside joke in a room away from the noise. It is a race with, apparently, more talented horses than in many years. But those horses, as in any Derby, are in just the spring of their three-year-old seasons, teenagers in human parlance. They are freshmen, rookies and one-and-dones, whose seeming talent may or may not match the praise they are receiving today. “It’s one of the deepest Derbies I can remember,” says uber-trainer Todd Pletcher, who won last year’s race with Always Dreaming and will saddle four starters on Saturday. One of them is Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, who, like Justify, did not start as a two-year-old. This means that Apollo, long gone from this earth, is facing a two-headed assault on his place in history.

Mendelssohn, too, faces a jinx of sorts. Winner last November of the Breeders Cup juvenile turf race, Mendelssohn prepared for the Kentucky Derby by training in Ireland and earned his place in the Derby field with a jaw-dropping 18-length victory in the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 31. No European  horse in the 19-year history of the UAE Derby used the Dubai path to a victory on the Kentucky.

But in a very real sense, these questions—Apollo? Dubai? Lightly raced?—are just a condensed version of the questions that arise every year on the first Saturday in May. The Kentucky Derby is the most-watched and most significant horse race in the United States, and one of the most important in the world. It makes grownups weep like children (for winning, or for losing) and it influences breeding lines—and incomes—for decades after the bed of roses wilts. But it is also a strange and unique test: A rumbling, 20-horse field watched by a well-lubricated crowd that approaches—or exceeds—175,000 humans, a distance of 1 ¼ miles that most of the participants will never attempt again in their short racing careers. There are endless variables, all of the mysteries until the starting gate opens on Saturday evening.

These variables are always in place. But in some years, it seems dubious that there is a single horse in the field that overcome them. This, it seems there are at least a half dozen. Justify’s dominant victory in the Santa Anita Derby was a tour de force of equine talent, and he has absolutely looked the part of the Derby winner this week in Louisville. But likewise, Mendelssohn was breathtakingly dominant in Dubai. Magnum Moon, who Pletcher nearly tried to race in late December just to avoid mention of the Apollo Curse, broke open the Arkansas Derby (but also drifted ominously to the outside in the home stretch, which Pletcher attributed to youthful distraction and said it only happens when Magnum Moon is in the lead, “which,” he said, “is a nice problem to have.” Or not.)

Good Magic won the Breeders Cup Juvenile race last November in California, and was voted the best two-year-old of the year and made the front runner for the Derby. He was soundly beaten in his first race this year, but bounced back to win the Blue Grass Stakes, seemingly recapturing his prior form. Two other Pletcher horses won major Derby preps: Audible in the Florida Derby and Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial. Either of them could be the Derby favorite in a softer year. Hofburg chased Audible to the line in the Florida Derby and seems to have the look of a horse that is improving every day, as teenagers will do. And Bolt d’Oro, named for the world’s fastest human and owned and trained by Mick Ruis’s mom-and-pop stable, was the favorite last fall in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, but after losing there, has twice been second this spring, and was trounced by Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. “We weren’t sharp for that race,” says Ruis. “Different race this time.”

Eight horses with legitimate chances. Eight opportunities to rise or fall.

Part of the exercise of previewing the Kentucky Derby is to select the winner. Three years ago, I was awed by American Pharoah’s performance in his final prep race, the Arkansas Derby, but for reasons I don’t fully understand even today, I refused a seat on his bandwagon in Kentucky, and instead chose his stablemate, Dortmund. Pharoah’s talent was unmistakable, but I leaned toward a contrary view (and I had been impressed by Dortmund’s towering physique during a March visit to California). Pharoah won the Derby. And the Preakness. And, of course, the Belmont. So: I will not make the same mistake again: I’m picking Justify, the most talented horse in the race.

Expect some conscious speed early in the Derby. Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway start next to each other in the No. 3 and No. 4 post positions. Each horse would be inclined to start quickly and try to grab the lead, but their positions near the inside rail will remove any doubt. Justify will start from the No. 7 post position; he has plenty of quickness and should be able to hustle to a position behind and outside Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway. Caveat: Jockey Mike Smith must break Justify straight and fast from the starting gate, or risk getting shuffled back to an unfamiliar position in the middle of a roiling scrum, with dirt clods landing in his face for the first time in his life. If this happens, all bets are off. (Well, not actually, but wouldn’t that be nice?) “The break is everything,” says Baffert. “The first step is so important. It’s important for every horse in the race.”

If Justify gets away clean and gets near the lead, the race is his to lose. Audible, Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro and Mendelssohn will all be seeking the same position as Justify. Some of them will be compromised by racing circumstance—bumped by a nearby horse, slow out of the gate or otherwise unnerved. Perhaps one of them will be good enough to outrun or squeeze Justify. I’m saying that won’t happen. But it absolutely could.

Assuming Justify controls the pace and unwinds into a clear lead at the top of the stretch, he can expect challenges from Hofburg or Vino Rosso or Magnum Moon, or perhaps an even longer shot. This is where we learn. This is where the Derby puts forth its most fundamental question: Are you good enough? With this horse, and in this year, the answer is yes.

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