Powell on how track condition factored into Justify's Kentucky Derby victory
by DICK POWELL
Some early impressions of the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1).
JUSTIFY exceeded expectations in a race where if he made one mistake, he doesn’t win. I know he’s the best horse but he broke perfectly, let Mike Smith gather him up and let PROMISES FULFILLED go to the front.
No matter how fast the pace was, he used his cruising speed to run his rivals into the ground. When Smith asked him for more, he gave it to him and the result was spectacular.
Mike Smith just keeps proving himself as the best big-money rider of his generation. Going into the Derby, he only had 89 mounts this year but who would you rather have? It’s hard to believe that he once had a reputation in New York as a rider that like to race wide while coming from off the pace.
Most of that was due to riding for Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott, who train their horses to settle early out of the starting gate. But, since he re-located to the West Coast, and eventually found a home in the Bob Baffert barn, he can ride on the front-end as good as anyone. It’s hard to believe it’s the same Mike Smith that used to have Steve Adika as his agent and was once known as “Five-Wide Mikey.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The rains came and the local meteorologists might as well have picked Justify to finish last. They were that far off.
The “Sloppy (sealed)” track made it hard to make up any ground because it was slippery and not the surface where a horse could respond to a rider’s cues and accelerate. If you didn’t grab it early, you were at a severe disadvantage and you were going to be eating a lot of mud. The pace didn’t really matter.
Races that have a “fast early/slow late” profile are very tough to handicap down the road. Final fractions are incredibly slow but very few made up any ground late. What appears to be a pace that will melt down and favor closers turns out to be quite the opposite. The leaders crawl home but they are hard to pass.
At least half the field had serious trouble at the start and the first quarter mile. Reading the comments of the official chart of the Derby reads like a Greek tragedy. You need luck in this game but horses that can break well make their own luck. The big field turns into an advantage and it is like a NASCAR driver looking in their rear-view mirror on the last lap and seeing a multi-car pile-up behind them.
GOOD MAGIC was gutty as could be. He likes to settle a bit early but Jose Ortiz knew that wasn’t going to work. He broke him well and set up shop in behind the leaders. Racing in between horses, he went by Promises Fulfilled on the turn and BOLT D’ORO nearing the top of the stretch.
Just when it looked like Good Magic was going to hook Justify, Smith cut the corner at the top of the stretch like he was riding the inner turf course and Ortiz drifted out three paths. Smith kept Justify glued to the rail and Good Magic began to flounder. You could see that the rail was the place to be since AUDIBLE was making up ground on it to just miss second and INSTILLED REGARD was right behind him.
A couple of surprises after the race. First, Baffert brought Justify out of the barn to see the media Sunday morning and he was not putting weight down on his left, hind foot. When questioned about it, Baffert said it was some kind of skin irritation and nothing to be alarmed about. We’ll see.
Second, Chad Brown said after Good Magic’s gallant second-place finish, where he had to do all the chasing, they would take him back to New York and see how he’s doing before deciding on the Preakness. The surprise was when he said “I don’t see a mile-and-a-half for this horse.” So, his gut reaction is to rule out the Belmont Stakes (G1) which I thought he was bred perfectly for.
Justify photo courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography