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Watchmaker: Justify proves he is the real deal

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

Emily Shields
Justify earned a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 107 for his Santa Anita Derby win.

For many, the inclination seems to be to stress that he got away with an easy, uncontested early lead over a small field short on real competition, and that circumstances will be dramatically different on many levels in the Kentucky Derby than they were in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. And the unmistakable inference here is he will be exposed at Churchill Downs.

But I think that misses the real point, which is that Justify proved in his decisive victory over Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby that he is absolutely, without question, the real deal.

Maybe Justify will lose in the Kentucky Derby. Geez, the Derby is still more than three weeks from being drawn. A lot can happen between now and then, and a lot can happen at the draw, too. Sure, Justify will have to deal with many more opponents in Kentucky and a much more intense pace, as if a hot pace is supposed to be an Achilles heel for him, as if Justify didn’t already show he can sit and pounce and romp going two turns in his second career start.

Maybe Justify’s inexperience will betray him at Churchill. Maybe the fact that he didn’t begin his career until Feb. 18, and the 136-year streak of Kentucky Derby winners having raced as 2-year-olds, will get to him.

That all might happen, but none of that should diminish in any way what Justify accomplished, and proved, on Saturday. In only his third career start, and in his first attempt at a distance beyond one mile, Justify absolutely toyed with Bolt d’Oro.

Think about that for a second. Bolt d’Oro is indisputably one of the best members of his generation. His stellar victory in the FrontRunner last fall was, I thought, the best performance by any 2-year-old in North America last year. And putting aside for a moment the controversy over the stewards’ decision to place him first on the disqualification of McKinzie in last month’s San Felipe, Bolt d’Oro delivered a giant performance in that race, and off a layoff.

But Bolt d’Oro, who was making his sixth career start Saturday, was asked for everything he had in the Santa Anita Derby from the three-eighths pole to the final yards, and he could not find the right answer. Justify, while not being asked for nearly as much as Bolt d’Oro, never let his fine opponent get close enough to be a real danger. He ran away from him late to score by three very decisive lengths and earn a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 107 that is the highest in a Derby prep this year.

Sure, circumstances will be radically different for Justify in the Kentucky Derby, but that will also be true for every other horse who lines up in the gates with him. Who is to say if any of them are better equipped to handle it?

Good Magic, who beat Bolt d’Oro on the square in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was voted divisional champion off that score, got the job done in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes. Good Magic secured a good striking position thanks to a deft move by jockey Jose Ortiz into the first turn and ground out a 1 1/2-length score that helped remove the bad taste of his empty third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut.

That said, Good Magic’s Blue Grass still left me a bit cold. For one, he was hard pressed to turn back Flameaway. Now, Flameaway is as game as they come and runs on anything, and I’d love to own him. But he had eight starts going into the Blue Grass, meaning we had a good handle on exactly what he is, and his previous-best Beyer of 93 said what Flameaway is – limited.

More revealing of Good Magic’s effort Saturday, which received a preliminary Beyer of 95, was Sporting Chance. Sporting Chance was three lengths off Good Magic’s lead when he lugged in badly under right-handed urging in midstretch. Then, under a left-handed smack inside the eighth pole, Sporting Chance ducked out badly, losing momentum with his sharp right-hand turn (and fouling Free Drop Billy). Yet despite Sporting Chance’s ridiculously erratic course (thank goodness he didn’t really hurt someone), Good Magic was only able to tack on an additional quarter-length on him in the final furlong.

Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial was the most controversial of Saturday’s three big Derby preps because Vino Rosso, who finished first by three lengths over Enticed, came in and bumped the runner-up a couple of times in the stretch run.

Right here, let me say that I agreed with the stewards’ decision to allow the result to stand. Was there contact between Vino Rosso and Enticed? Yes. Did Vino Rosso initiate the contact? Yes. And in many cases, that would have been enough to warrant a disqualification.

But in this instance, it was obvious that contact or not, Vino Rosso was going to win and Enticed was absolutely not going to win. And if anything, I think Vino Rosso’s actions actually hurt him more than they compromised Enticed.

As for the race, I liked Vino Rosso in last month’s Tampa Bay Derby because I thought the addition of blinkers would do the trick for a colt who had run only in spots, yet finished strongly, in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Vino Rosso was dreadful in the Tampa Bay Derby. But he was a completely different horse Saturday, delivering by far his best performance and earning a career-best Beyer of 98.

As for Enticed, I had suspicions going into the Wood that at least at this stage of his career, he might be most effective as a one-turn miler (yes, I know he won the Kentucky Jockey Club going two turns last fall, but that was a very slow race). Coming out of the Wood, I still think he’s suspect going long, which is not to say he can’t become effective routing in time.

Notes:

• The Kentucky Oaks picture was certainly clarified Saturday, and right now, it looks dangerously close to being a two-horse race between the impressive pair of Monomoy Girl and Midnight Bisou.

Once-beaten Monomoy Girl, who was days the best when rallying from last in the Rachel Alexandra in her 3-year-old debut, turned Keeneland’s Ashland into a front-running laugher, drawing off to score by 5 1/2 lengths.

Midnight Bisou is also admirably versatile. She showed positional sprint speed in romping in the Santa Ynez in her first start this year, she successfully stalked in her easy Santa Ysabel score in her first attempt at two turns, and on Saturday, she inhaled her field from well off the pace to dominate the Santa Anita Oaks.

• I know it happened on Friday, but Analyze It’s sensational victory in the Transylvania at Keeneland merits a word. This was Analyze It’s third runaway victory from as many starts, and he is the most exciting 3-year-old turf prospect we’ve had in years. I’d love to see him target a European classic – that’s how good I think he is.

• Finally, one of the most impressive winners Saturday, and certainly the fastest with a 114 Beyer, was Army Mule in Aqueduct’s Carter Handicap. Sure, Army Mule had a great trip, getting through inside, and granted, he didn’t beat a stellar field. Still, the way he ran away from his field like they were chained to the quarter pole, winning in a runaway like he did in his first two career starts, left no doubt that he is one of the best one-turn horses in the country.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays, and analysis

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