The stunning story of Justify's rise from equine nobody to Triple Crown threat

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Spring time is basically Christmas time for thoroughbred racing trainers. This is when the new four-legged presents begin to arrive in the barn, in the form of 2-year-old horses ready to start their racing careers.

Optimism flows. Hope grows. Trainers nationwide dream that one of those new arrivals eventually will become next year’s Kentucky Derby winner.

But at this time a year ago, the 2018 winner of the run for the roses was way off Derby radar – and he would stay off it for another nine months. Forget being a spring Christmas gift; he wouldn’t be shipped to his trainer’s barn until late fall.

He was an equine nobody — a strapping, strong, expensive nobody who was purchased for $500,000 as a yearling, thanks to a promising pedigree and striking stature. Much was expected of the colt, but he spent all of 2017 lagging behind his peers in terms of development.

Parents of late-blooming children, the Justify story is for you.

It took a while for everything to come together. But once it did, the results have been like time-lapse photography: four straight victories in a span of 77 days, capped by the Derby victory May 5. Now Justify heads to Baltimore this week as the prohibitive favorite to win the Preakness, and then theoretically head to the Belmont with a chance to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in horse-racing history.

All of which would be preposterous to propose 12 months ago.

Bob Baffert leads Justify out of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs the morning after winning the 144th Kentucky Derby. (AP)

After being broken as a yearling, Justify was sent to WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, to initiate the process of becoming a racer. At that point, he was simply one of a few dozen 2-year-olds in the pipeline, a big baby with raw talent but a lot of work ahead of him.

“He always looked like a good horse,” said Sean Tugel, WinStar’s director of bloodstock and assistant racing manager. “Now, did he look like a Kentucky Derby winner who would run four straight 100 Beyer Figures (the go-to metric in horse racing)? No, I can’t say he was that.”

When Justify was ready, the horse was put through the usual beginner paces: a quarter-mile workout on the farm’s racing surface, then stretching to 3/8 of a mile. He ran impressively, but didn’t come out of the second work in peak form.

“He just had a little immaturity, a little setback,” Tugel said. “He just had a little stiffness and soreness” for what has in some places been reported as a pulled muscle. “He needed time off.”

Justify’s timetable was delayed, effectively scratching his 2-year-old campaign. It wasn’t until September when WinStar let him off the farm, sending him to nearby Keeneland Race Course in Lexington for more seasoning under trainer Rodolphe Brisset.

Brisset is a promising young freshman who had assisted Hall of Famer Bill Mott and just opened his own outfit in 2017. The arrangement was temporary before moving Justify to one of WinStar’s A-list trainers.

After about five weeks with Brisset, the consensus at WinStar was that Justify was growing up and developing into a serious race horse. Last November, WinStar CEO Elliott Walden shipped his raw, rising star to California to work under the most accomplished trainer in America, Bob Baffert.

“He’s a big, robust horse that fits [Baffert’s] training program,” Tugel said.

Thing is, Baffert’s barn is so loaded that he basically has a baseball-like farm system in Southern California. The B-list horses start at Los Alamitos – then, if they prove themselves in morning gallops, they head to The Show at Santa Anita Park.

Mike Smith, right, rides Justify through the fourth turn and unto victory during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Louisville, Ky. (AP)

When Justify arrived, Baffert checked his pedigree and was a bit puzzled. The colt’s sire is Scat Daddy, whose progeny had largely excelled in turf races, as opposed to dirt. With 13 Triple Crown wins in his career, Baffert’s best work clearly was getting 3-year-olds ready for spring dirt races.

“Elliott sent me a Scat Daddy?” Baffert thought at the time. “What? I was thinking turf sprinter.”

Perhaps for that reason it took a while for Justify to get the attention of Derby-fixated Baffert — to the mild consternation and impatience of the WinStar camp. After six or seven weeks of promising work, Justify finally moved to the Santa Anita barn around Christmas.

“That’s when you started hearing the ‘wow’ chatter,” Tugel said.

It took one workout at Santa Anita to radically alter Baffert’s thinking. After Justify dazzled all observers that morning, Baffert told his brother, Bill, that he had a “f—ing monster” on his hands. He then called the very religious Walden back at WinStar and used different language.

“Elliott,” Baffert said, “this horse is a runner.”

Walden’s response: “I’ve been telling you that.”

And that’s when the patient approach was replaced by the hurry-up offense. It was time to get Justify on the Kentucky Derby trail.

His first competition was a maiden race Feb. 18 at Santa Anita. Justify rolled to a nine-length victory and earned a 104 Beyer figure — an eye-popping number for his first career start. When it was followed by a 6½-length win in his second start on March 11, and another 100-plus Beyer, the hype escalated quickly.

Still, Justify was the second-stringer in Baffert’s barn in terms of Kentucky Derby plans. McKinzie was the star, ticketed for the Santa Anita Derby, while Justify was being aimed at the Arkansas Derby.

When McKinzie was injured, Justify was elevated to the first string and entered in the Santa Anita. After toying with the well-regarded Bolt d’Oro in that race, the path to Louisville was clear and the favorite’s role was thrust upon him.

Despite his prodigious talent, Justify’s slow start to his racing career was a Derby obstacle to be overcome. Not since Apollo in 1882 had a horse won the Derby without having raced at age 2, and more than a few handicappers and horsemen figured that lack of seasoning would be Justify’s undoing on the first Saturday in May.

Baffert wasn’t worried. Whatever race seasoning his star colt lacked, the trainer had made up for in rigorous morning workouts. Justify came to Louisville dead fit.

“I have a really great foundation in all my horses,” Baffert said. “I had him ready, in case he had to run hard and fast. We only baby them inside the barn.”

On a miserably wet Derby day, Justify terminated the 136-year-old “Curse of Apollo” and won the biggest race of his life. A career that was slow to start reached an apex in a stunningly short period of time — perhaps with more to come.

Back on the farm in Versailles, in the belly of Kentucky’s verdant horse country, they’re giddily watching their late bloomer explode into a star.

“It’s pretty darn exciting,” Tugel said. “It’s what makes it easy to get out of bed when the alarm goes off in the morning — and the alarm goes off pretty early in our business. There’s only one horse that can win the Triple Crown now.”

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