Baffert’s latest Derby win with Justify might be his greatest
LOUISVILLE – Around this time every spring, a new crop of 2-year-olds arrives at the Bob Baffert barn in Southern California. In a given year, there might be as many as 30 or 40, nearly all of them regally bred and many of them purchased at auctions in the high six- or seven-figure range by owners who dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.
From there, it’s basically a numbers game. Some of them will end up on the Derby trail and perhaps make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Others will be too slow to develop or get derailed by injuries. Some of them inevitably won’t be able to run a lick.
“Right now we’re getting these 2-yearolds coming in, and you’re thinking, which one can take me back to the big show?” Baffert said last week. “It’s like a coach saying, ‘Hey, I just got the three top recruits coming in for next year and we’re going to be good.’ That’s what keeps me motivated.”
Baffert, 65, has won the Kentucky Derby five times after Justify’s triumph May 5. Remarkably, he has done it for five different owners, all of whom have recognized his talent in getting 3-year-olds ready for this particular, challenging race.
While any trainer would tell you having the right horse is essential, and the volume of talented colts Baffert gets gives him a head start on the process, the job he did to get Justify in the winner’s circle will go down as perhaps the greatest training feat in his career.
As Zayat Stables racing manager Justin Zayat tweeted after the race: “I’ve said it for years and I’ll say it again. Bob Baffert greatest trainer of all time. I don’t think it’s even close anymore! The man knows his horses inside out, his attention to detail is second to none #GOAT.”
Though Zayat might be biased — Baffert, after all, helped deliver him a Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah — the evidence for his place in history is mounting.
Baffert’s fifth Derby win moves him into second place all time, one behind Ben Jones who trained for Calumet Farm during its era of dominance in the 1940s. His next Triple Crown race win, which could very well come at the May 19 Preakness, will tie him with D. Wayne Lukas for the most all time at 14. His 14 wins in Breeders’ Cup races are second behind Lukas’ 20.
Justify’s performance in the Derby is yet another exclamation point on a career that already added a few in recent years with American Pharoah breaking the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015 and Arrogate bursting onto the scene in the summer of 2016, winning the Travers (the biggest post-Triple Crown race for 3year-olds) in August and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses including the great California Chrome.
Until May 5, those were widely considered Baffert’s most impressive training jobs. But anyone who understands the game and the history of the Kentucky Derby would have to put Justify’s win right at the top.
A mere 76 days before the Derby, Justify was little more than the No. 3 horse in the second race at Santa Anita, restricted to horses that had never won a race. Though there had been buzz on the backstretch and around the Baffert barn about what kind of horse this could be based on his morning workouts, nobody thinks a horse making its first start on Feb. 18 is going to end up in the Kentucky Derby.
More than 100 years of history says there just isn’t enough time to get ready to run 1 1⁄4 miles, which is beyond what 4 many of these horses are capable of even under the best of circumstances.
But Baffert had an ambitious plan to thread the needle: Win the debut, come back in three weeks in a 1-mile allowance, then go into the deep water in the Santa Anita Derby.
“This colt was really special as a yearling,” said Elliott Walden, the president and CEO of racing for WinStar Farm, which bought Justify at auction for $500,000. “I have been asked about how we bought him a lot. He just stood out. Like Bob said, he’s kind of like LeBron. And I got excited when Bob told me that he was going to run him — and he had a plan to get to the Derby.”
At that point, Baffert thought Justify would be his second-stringer for the Triple Crown races. McKinzie had been the star of his barn, winning the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and an early Derby prep at Santa Anita in January. But on March 10, McKinzie had to be taken out of training because of a bruised hock.
It was a reminder that for all of Baffert’s success, he’s had heartbreak, too. Last year Baffert thought he had another potential Derby winner on his hands in Mastery, who was a brilliant 4-for-4 but took a bad step just after crossing the wire in the San Felipe Stakes and suffered a career-ending condylar fracture of his front left ankle.
“In this business, if you have a good 3-year-old and you get that call, it just rips your soul,” Baffert said. “It’s a lot of fun. But there’s some times you have to really — you have to go through it. The only thing that made me really get through it, I knew I had this big red son of a gun sitting in the barn that looks like he could be pretty good himself.”
That son of a gun was Justify, and in any other hands we might not have even known the name today, which is a remarkable stroke of luck considering WinStar sends its 3-year-olds to a variety of trainers.
In fact, even in this Derby, WinStar owned a piece of Audible and Noble Indy (trained by Todd Pletcher) and owns a horse named Quip, which is a candidate for the Belmont under the tutelage of Rodolphe Brisset. WinStar’s 2016 Belmont winner Creator was trained by Steven Asmussen.
Although Walden said he couldn’t recall exactly why Justify went to Baffert, the partners WinStar took on in 2016, including the China Horse Club conglomerate, wanted some horses to go out West with Baffert.
That wasn’t just a good decision, but a historic one.
Mike Smith rode Justify to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle for white-haired Bob Baffert just 76 days after Justify’s first-ever race.