'There's no way': A behind-the-scenes look at the tense moments during Justify's Kentucky Derby victory

Yahoo Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert stared at the TV screen on one side of Churchill Downs as the horses galloped around another side, navigating the far turn in a slanting rain that turned this Kentucky Derby into a quagmire. Everything hung in the balance.

Baffert was watching the Derby in the horseman’s lounge just off the paddock, wearing a clear plastic poncho over his suit as the day-long deluge continued outside. The noise in the room was escalating as the race reached its latter stages. Suddenly, the thoroughbred trainer’s voice rose above the din.

“C’mon,” Baffert said to the TV screen, “show me what a great horse you are.”

Justify showed him. Showed 157,813 soaked fans. Showed the entire sport and the entire world.

He is a great horse, perhaps on his way to becoming an immortal horse.

The noise in the room just kept rising as Justify just kept rolling, winning the 144th run for the roses with a performance that stamps him as the sport’s next superstar. In a race that left 19 horses and their riders covered in mud, jockey Mike Smith’s white WinStar Farm silks were pristine as he led Justify through a withering early pace and still had enough left in the stretch to beat Good Magic by 2½ lengths.

Justify and Mike Smith remained nearly dirt-free in their run to the roses in the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. (NBC screenshot)
Justify and Mike Smith remained nearly dirt-free in their run to the roses in the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. (NBC screenshot)

It was the fifth Derby win for Baffert, second-most in history, giving him a legitimate argument to be considered the greatest American trainer of all-time. And this win immediately stokes anticipation for another Triple Crown bid. Baffert broke a 37-year Triple Crown drought three years ago with American Pharoah, and he regards the lightly raced Justify in the same category as the two best he’s ever trained, Pharoah and Arrogate.

“I was just in awe of that performance,” Baffert said. “He just put himself up there with the greats.”

What the colt overcame to win this race was substantial – from the history books to the elements to the pace. The so-called “Curse of Apollo” is dead at last, with Justify becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. Any concerns about the sloppy track junking up the race and producing a fluke winner were discarded as well, despite hours of concern from Baffert as the downpour never subsided.

“I couldn’t believe the weather,” Baffert said. “I was not feeling great about it. I was preparing my wife [Jill] for a loss. We were ready to head out the gate the minute they hit the wire.”

But most of all, Justify, the 5-2 favorite going in, justified his hype by winning when lesser horses would have folded in the stretch, cooked by those stout early fractions. It takes tactical speed to win the Kentucky Derby, but too much front-end speed has been the demise of countless Derby runners who cannot sustain it in the stretch to finish 1¼ miles.

That’s why horsemen and horseplayers keenly watch the early Derby fractions when they are posted, using them to extrapolate how the race might end. Too quick too soon, and things can end badly.

When the first quarter mile was covered by speedball Promises Fulfilled in 22.24 seconds, that was a concern for the Justify camp. Their colt was sitting just off Promises Fullfilled’s shoulder at that point.

Watching the race in the same room with his brother, Bill Baffert saw that 22-second split and murmured at the TV, “Take it easy.” Ten feet away, Bob thought to himself, “He better be great.”

The half-mile split was more of the same: 45.77 seconds, with Justify still sitting just off the front runner. Baffert misread the number as 46, and his wife corrected him, shaking her head with her hands clasped in front of her face.

Baffert’s thought at that point: “This poor little horse. He’s going to lay down. There’s no way.”

In fact, Baffert and Smith both could be forgiven if they had a brief flashback at that point to the 2012 Derby. In that race, Smith took Baffert’s colt, Bodemeister, to the lead in strikingly similar times to what unfolded Saturday: 22.32 seconds for the quarter mile, 45.39 for the half. That day, the pace was unsustainable – Bodemeister was passed in the deep stretch by I’ll Have Another.

This time, Smith was on a horse that would not be caught in the run to the wire. Good Magic, who tracked Justify but couldn’t catch him, wobbled home a tired second.

“When my horse started rolling, I hoped [Justify] would get tired,” said Good Magic jockey Jose Ortiz. “But he didn’t.”

Said Smith: “To go 45 and still finish like he did was incredible.”

Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory with trainer Bob Baffert, left, during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs. (AP)
Mike Smith celebrates after riding Justify to victory with trainer Bob Baffert, left, during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs. (AP)

And so a prophecy of excellence for the son of Scat Daddy takes another step toward fulfillment. From Justify’s first morning workouts during the early stages of 2018, those who saw him run came away dazzled.

Before he’d even run a race, veteran Santa Anita Park clocker Gary Young called Darren Rogers of the Churchill Downs publicity department and told him he may have seen the Derby winner. Bill Baffert said he was present for Justify’s first workout, and remembered his brother’s appraisal afterward: “He’s a f***ing monster.”

The monster was finally unleashed in a race on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita, and he rolled to a 9½-length victory. Justify won an allowance race three weeks later on the same track – but this time in the mud, a key piece of track experience that might have helped him handle the bog he slogged through Saturday. When he backed that up four weeks later with an easy triumph in the Santa Anita Derby, the hype machine went into overdrive.

Justify arrived in Louisville as the clear favorite – but Baffert has been in that situation before and come away with a loss, and he wasn’t taking anything for granted. Especially against an accomplished array of competitors, considered the best Derby field in many years.

“This is the toughest bunch that I have ever been involved with,” Baffert said. “There’s some really good horses in there.”

But maybe only one great one. We’ll find out for sure in the coming weeks.

Justify may well have scared off a lot of Preakness competition. Baffert has dominated that race in the past, having won it six times (including all four of his previous Derby winners), and the group Justify just defeated here will have a lot of improving to do over the next two weeks. Even if Justify comes out of the Derby tired and regresses a bit, he could still be a winner in Baltimore.

The Belmont, of course, would be the hard part. Trainer Todd Pletcher hates running horses back off just two weeks’ rest, so he’s much more likely to give Saturday’s third-place finisher Audible some rest and point him toward the last leg of the Triple Crown on June 9 in New York. Other Derby entrants could well do the same.

American Pharoah was able to handle all of it three years ago, becoming just the 12th Triple Crown winner and establishing his place in history. Now here comes Justify, just the ninth undefeated Derby winner ever, looking like the next immortal horse.

“You know how I feel about his ability,” Smith said. “There’s no telling what this horse can do.”

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