Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 6, 2018

A Justifiably Great Race

It was the final challenge, the last of so many obstacles that had to be overcome between the foaling barn at John Gunther’s Glenwood Farm and the finish line at Churchill Downs. As the field came off the final turn, passing the quarter pole and straightening for home, Justify had broken clear of the pack, with Good Magic passing Bolt D’Oro to move into second place. Then, for just a few seconds, over the course of four or five bounds by both thoroughbreds, it appeared that the pursuer was closing. Perhaps the burden of running near or on the lead virtually from the start of the race was about to prove too much for the favorite in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

The drive from Versailles, Kentucky, home of Gunther’s breeding operation, to Churchill Downs takes little more than an hour, a distance of sixty miles or so. But the road for foals born in 2015 to the starting gate for the 2018 Derby was far more circuitous. Roughly 22,000 thoroughbreds are born in the U.S. every year. A few times that number are born around the rest of the globe, though despite strong efforts to attract foreign entrants each year’s Derby field remains overwhelmingly American. Fewer than half the foals born in any year ever run even a single competitive race. A tiny fraction of those manage to be successful enough to one day be loaded into the starting gate for one of the forty-five races that are the official qualifying contests for the Derby.

Each of those races, from the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last September to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Lexington Stakes at Keeneland three Saturdays ago, award points to the top four finishers. Except for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the point scale for all the 2017 races as well as those scheduled for the first six weeks of this year is 10-4-2-1. As the calendar draws closer to May, the scale increases, all the way up to 100-40-20-10 for the major prep races in March and April.

Last year’s Iroquois went to The Tabulator by half a length over Hollywood Star, with Ten City and Ebben in third and fourth respectively. They were the first four horses to earn points toward this year’s Derby, but none were anywhere near Churchill Downs on Saturday. Only the top twenty horses on the final points list qualify for the Derby, less than one-tenth of one percent of the thoroughbreds born in American foaling sheds three years earlier. On the strength of victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon topped this year’s list of qualifiers with 150 points, followed by the 2-year-old champion Good Magic with 134. Justify was in a tie for 8th place with the 100 points he earned for winning the Santa Anita Derby one month ago.

The simple math of qualifying is daunting enough but Justify faced other challenges as well. He was installed as the 3-1 morning line favorite by Churchill’s oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, and he stayed that way on the parimutuel tote boards right up until the gates sprung open. Starting with Orb in 2013, the post time favorite had ended the Derby draped in the traditional blanket of roses five straight years, the longest streak in the race’s history. Given that over the course of the 143 previous Derbys the bettors’ choice prevailed roughly one-third of the time, the current streak of winning favorites seemed overdue for an ending.

Then there was one of the reasons that Justify was only 8th on the qualifying list. That’s because he never raced as a 2-year-old and had gone to the post just three times in all. In the days leading up to the Derby fans were constantly reminded of the Curse of Apollo, the supposed hex preventing any horse without a 2-year-old start from winning on the first Saturday in May. The jinx was named after the last horse to do so, the winner in 1882 when the Kentucky Derby was still in its infancy.

Perhaps because he was unraced at age two, Apollo entered that long-ago Derby as a 10-1 longshot. The heavy favorite was Runnymede, who went off at 4-5, better than even money. He looked the part with a charge to the lead as the horses came down the stretch, but then Apollo closed with what a contemporaneous account described as a “cyclonic rush,” passing Runnymede in the final strides to steal the victory.

Apollo may not have run as a 2-year-old, but he raced twenty-one times at age 3, thirty times at age 4, and four more times at age 5 before an injury ended his career. He won twenty-four of his fifty-five starts and finished out of the money only seven times. Those staggering numbers remind us of just how much the sport has changed. While not racing as a 2-year-old remains unusual for a top-line thoroughbred, not one of the twenty horses that went to the post on Saturday will compete in anything approaching fifty-five races before they are retired.

For Justify as for all the entrants, there was also the unique nature of the Kentucky Derby in general and the specific elements of this year’s race. None of the animals had ever experienced the mad rush that is the start of the Derby because of the huge field. They break from both the fourteen-stall main gate and an additional six-still auxiliary gate, and every jockey on the outside is desperate to get his mount in toward the rail to save ground. The result is a pinballing wave of horses coming down the front stretch for the first quarter-mile.

Many a Derby dream has died in the chaos of the start. This year’s obvious victim was Mendelssohn, the Irish entrant who had romped in Dubai. With Ryan Moore aboard Mendelssohn broke from the 14 post. As the last stall in the main gate, that meant there was extra space to his right before the auxiliary gate began. But that just meant that Instilled Regard and Magnum Moon, breaking from posts 15 and 16, had an extra stride or two to build up momentum before they barged into Mendelssohn, nearly knocking him down.

But Justify had a clean start and moved quickly out of the 7 post to race alongside Promises Fulfilled, the early pacesetter. From that position veteran jockey Mike Smith also didn’t have to worry about being pelted with the heavy mud that was being thrown up by every flying hoof. Saturday turned into the wettest Derby Day in history, with nearly three inches of rain falling on Churchill Downs. Navigating the slop became just one more challenge in the run for the roses.

And so, the moment came, the second or two at the top of the stretch when it looked like Good Magic was starting to reel in the leader. Then, just as quickly, Smith asked Justify for more and the horse moved into another gear. The one length lead became two, then two and a half. On to the wire they flew, overcoming the impossible odds of even qualifying, the burden of being the favorite, the lack of seasoning, a 136-year curse, the chances of a bad beginning, and even the weather, Justify and Mike Smith, with trainer Bob Baffert looking on, overcame all the challenges with a dominating run to glory.


  1. Excellent column, Mike. Your usual high-quality writing.

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