Justify, Bolt d'Oro Impress in Santa Anita Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 9th, 2018

It appears that the hype is justified.

Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at Santa Anita was billed as a showdown between the two-time Grade 1 winner and the up-and-coming sensation , with the latter less than two months into his racing career. Bolt d’Oro had the edge in experience, but Justify--conditioned by the Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert--had been brilliant winning his two previous starts by daylight with triple-digit Beyer and BRIS speed figures.

In the end, Justify turned the Santa Anita Derby into a one-horse race, winning by three lengths as the odds-on favorite. And while there’s no way to predict how high he will rise, at this point it appears that the hype and excitement surrounding Justify is—well—justified.

The only aspect of his Santa Anita Derby performance that can be knocked is the fact that he secured an uncontested lead and was never seriously challenged, but then again, it was Justify’s superior speed out of the gate that gave him that advantage. Sent straight to the lead by jockey Mike Smith, Justify carved out steady fractions of :23.96, :47.85, and 1:12.61 while leading by as much as three lengths down the backstretch. Rounding the far turn, Bolt d’Oro moved up to challenge, but Smith executed a perfect ride on the favorite, drifting wide off the turn to let Bolt d’Oro through on the inside before drifting back to the rail down the homestretch, shutting the door and quietly keeping Bolt d’Oro from getting a clear run behind him.

However, such subtle tactics probably weren’t necessary, because Justify finished up the final three furlongs in a strong :37.11 (the fastest split we’ve seen so far in any of the nine-furlong Derby prep races) to pull away at the end and win by three lengths. The final time of 1:49.72 was remarkably quick on a day when the track was not playing particularly fast, and Justify was rewarded with a 107 Beyer speed figure and a 114 BRIS, huge numbers that stamp him as the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby.

Sure, Justify could face a tougher trip in the Kentucky Derby. And granted, his lack of experience is concerning; he was unraced as a two-year-old, and the last unraced juvenile to win the Kentucky Derby was Apollo in 1882.

But Justify showed in his allowance victory two starts that he can successfully rate off the pace if necessary, and while experience is certainly important, times have changed and Derby contenders across the board are racing significantly less these days. It’s likely just a matter of time before someone breaks the fabled “Apollo Curse,” and in Justify, we might be looking at a true star in the making.

That said, I wouldn’t be too hard on Bolt d’Oro, who suffered a slight hoof injury during the race while facing the tricky task of trying to reel in the lone leader. He finished the final three furlongs in :37.40, also an excellent time, and would be a clear-cut Derby favorite in the absence of Justify. I would not be surprised to see these colts run 1-2 on the first Saturday in May.

Were you similarly impressed by Justify and Bolt d’Oro?