Baffert Talks Justify, Arkansas Derby
'He Just Keeps Coming Out of His Stall'
Bob Baffert has won 13 Kentucky Derby prep races at Oaklawn since 2010, but never with a horse making just his third career start. That could change with Justify scheduled to make his stakes debut in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 14 at Oaklawn Park.
Unlike Bodemeister or American Pharoah, Justify hasn't lost leading up to his scheduled Oaklawn debut, but he's only raced twice. Still, the physically imposing son of the late Scat Daddy owns the two fastest Beyer Speed Figures for a 3-year-old this year.
Noted Southern California-based handicapper Jeff Siegel has Justify No. 1 in his Top 20 Triple Crown Rankings, noting the colt’s “pedigree suggests added distance shouldn’t be a problem; very late to the party but appears blessed with unlimited ability.”
Justify – in company – worked 5 furlongs in :59.60 over a fast track Monday morning at Santa Anita, which was the second-best time of 118 recorded at the distance.
“We’re pretty excited about him, and when you see him, you’ll know why,” Baffert said Tuesday morning from the United Arab Emirates, where he will send out West Coast and Mubtaahij in Saturday’s $10 million Dubai World Cup . “When he comes out of his stall, he just keeps coming out. He's big.
Baffert's other stable star among his 3-years-old -- so far -- is McKenzie, ane he also has Solomini, who was second in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. McKenzie is set to go next in the Santa Anita Derby, while Solomini is being pointed to the Wood Memorial. Both of those races are set for Aprl 7.
“He’s late to the party, but the raw talent is there,” Baffert said. “But he’s going to have to ship and then go to that paddock, so he’s got a lot of things he’s going to have to deal with. I could have kept him home, but I’d like to ship him to see how he handles it all. He needs to go there and get in front of a big crowd. If he runs well there, we’ll run in the Derby, or just wait for the Preakness. But we're just taking it one race at a time. I think he’s really talented. He's a big, beautiful red horse. He’s a big strong horse. I have McKinzie, too, and he's a really good horse but nobody talks about him. He's a good horse, too.”
Of Baffert’s 13 Kentucky Derby prep victories at Oaklawn, the only two horses without any prior stakes experience were Castaway (winner of a division of the Southwest Stakes in 2012) and Cupid (2016 Rebel Stakes). Both horses had exited maiden victories at Santa Anita. Castaway was making his seventh career start in the Southwest, Cupid his fourth in the Rebel.
Bodemeister, in his fourth career start, won the Arkansas Derby by 9 1/2 lengths.
Justify’s resume mirrors another Baffert trainee, Bayern, who was also unraced at age two before making his first two career starts in early 2014 at Santa Anita.
Bayern won a 7-furlong maiden race by 3 1/4 lengths, then returned to clear his first allowance condition by 15 lengths at a mile. Bayern’s first two career starts produced Beyer Speed Figures of 92 and 98, respectively. In his third career start, Bayern finished third in the Arkansas Derby. He capped his 3-year-old campaign with a victory in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“The advantage he has is his ability,” Baffert said of Justify. “That’s a big advantage. He's a pretty talented horse. The disadvantage is that he has to ship well, and they have to get used to the track and the paddock there, so it's whole different surroundings. But I think it will be good for him to go through all that and see if he can handle it. Can he hold up under pressure? He's done everything well at Santa Anita, but he's had it his way. California has short fields, and all of a sudden you get him in the gate with 12 or 14 horses in there, and he's never had any adversity before. He had a little in his first start, when he went really, really fast and then kept going. That's when he showed us how good he is. The other day, he had that little allowance race where he sat off the pace a little bit.”
Baffert said Mike Smith, who rode Justify in his allowance victory, will have the mount in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby.
Arkansas Derby candidate Magnum Moon, who's also unbeaten, earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure for his victory in the Rebel Stakes, the final local prep for the Arkansas Derby, which was his third career start and stakes debut.
Curlin won the 2007 Arkansas Derby in his third career start to remain unbeaten. He was coming off a sparkling victory in the Rebel. Curlin went on to run third in the Kentucky Derby and win the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male honors.
Edited Oaklawn Park release with additional content by Dick Downey