LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Darren Rogers saved the voicemail.
It was a call from Santa Anita Park clocker Gary Young on Feb. 13, and it was prophecy. Young was like the scout who first saw a 15-year-old LeBron James or Bryce Harper, and he had to tell someone. Specifically, he had to tell Rogers, the Senior Director of Communications and Media Services at Churchill Downs.
Young was phoning from California to tout a colt who had the potential to show up at Churchill in May as the star of the 144th Kentucky Derby.
There was just one problem: The Derby was only 2½ months away at that point, and the colt hadn’t yet run a race. Which flew in the face of history, if not logic.
But Young was sold – and when Young is sold on a horse, people pay attention. He’d watched the big, powerful 3-year-old’s first morning workout and been impressed enough to ask trainer Bob Baffert, “Who the hell is that?” Then he watched a second morning work, out of the starting gate, and been dazzled. “He worked like a freak,” Young said.
The horse’s first race was five days away when Young called his shot to Rogers. The well-bred, $500,000 yearling purchase won that maiden race by 9½ lengths, and then his next start by 6½, and then the Santa Anita Derby by three. Basically, he has toyed with the competition at every opportunity. And now, a mere 76 days after leaving that voicemail, the colt Young touted is the 3-1 morning line favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Justify is on the verge of justifying the hype.
“When you do what I do for 40 years, you see horses like Justify and American Pharoah, they stick out,” Young said Tuesday. “Right now, I put Justify in American Pharoah’s class. And more importantly, I think Mr. Baffert does, too.”
Those are big words in thoroughbred racing. American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, becoming an equine immortal by ending a 37-year drought that had tortured the sport. You throw down that kind of comparison, and you’re basically heralding the arrival of a new superhorse.
All Justify has to do to live up to that billing is this: beat a loaded field of challengers and defeat a 136-year-old Derby curse.
In 1882, a horse named Apollo rallied late to overtake Runnymede and win the eighth Kentucky Derby. The colt “started a cyclonic rush an eighth of a mile from home,” according to the race recap on KentuckyDerby.com, and won by half a length.
In the process, Apollo accomplished something that hasn’t been done since. He is the last Derby champion who did not race as a 2-year-old. As the decades have gone by, that distinction has been elevated from an historical footnote to a so-called curse.
Horsemen don’t much believe in the Curse of Apollo. But they also haven’t been able to end it.
“I mean, it’s lasted long enough that I guess there has to be something to it,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who also has an unbeaten Derby horse who didn’t race at 2, Magnum Moon. “But I feel strongly that at some point someone’s going to reverse the curse.”
Fact is, not a lot of horses make it to the Derby as an unraced 2-year-old. From 1937 through last year, just 61 had tried it. But when any kind of sporting streak dates back to the Chester Arthur Administration, it becomes a storyline. (By comparison, the Chicago Cubs’ 108 years without a World Series title is no big thing.)
But beyond mere statistical circumstance is the belief that horses need seasoning to be ready for the rigors of the Kentucky Derby – the longest race of their lives to this point, against the largest field they will ever face. A foundation built on conditioning and competition has long been viewed as a must, and that foundation historically starts at age 2.
But the game has changed dramatically in recent years. Horses race far less often, which means 3-year-old races are contested by less seasoned horses than in decades past. Only one horse in this Derby field has more than nine lifetime starts, and the top eight betting choices average less than five lifetime starts. Justify was brought along slowly, allowed to mature into his big body.
D. Wayne Lukas, who has won a record 14 Triple Crown races, believes the abilities of Baffert and Pletcher are enough to get lightly raced horses ready for the Derby.
“If some guys didn’t race them at 2, it might be a factor,” Lukas said. “But with Baffert and Todd, those guys will have them dead ready.”
The greater issue Lukas sees for Justify is the fact that he’s won all three of his races so easily. He faced small fields at Santa Anita, was never worse than second at any point in any race, and has rolled home unchallenged in the stretch every time.
That’s in no small part because of the horse’s prodigious talent. But that set of circumstances is unlikely to replicate itself in a 20-horse brawl Saturday.
“He’s had a soft, soft program up until now,” Lukas said. “He’s going to jump into the deep end of the pool now. But I think he’ll handle it.”
For his part, Baffert isn’t worrying about any Apollo curse: “It’ll be broken, whether it’s this year or whenever.”
Black cats are another issue. If you want to get the four-time Derby winner spooked, trot one of those out in his path.
“I’m serious,” Baffert said. “The only thing that gets me is a black cat.”
Baffert cited two crushing defeats in which he believes those animals were culprits: the 2001 Derby he lost with favorite Point Given, who would go on to win the Preakness and Belmont in dominant fashion; and the 1998 Belmont, when Real Quiet was nosed out at the wire in the Belmont and lost the Triple Crown in the process. Baffert says a black cat crossed his path in the days before both races.
Cats are commonplace in racetrack barn areas, usually with the blessing of the horsemen. They catch mice, which is a benefit, and they don’t get in the way of the horses. But Baffert would like to see some selective feline enforcement.
“They should not allow black cats [in the barn area],” Baffert declared Tuesday morning.
A couple of hours later, Baffert’s big horse learned his starting gate fate for the Derby: lucky No. 7. It’s a good spot. And if Gary Young’s prophecy is correct, it will take more than a 136-year-old curse or a stray cat to derail Justify’s bid for equine immortality.
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