Undefeated Justify on Saturday won the 144th Kentucky Derby, ignoring the wettest conditions in race history to become the first Derby champion since 1882 who did not race as a two-year-old.
Trainer Bob Baffert won the Derby for the fifth time, one shy of the record owned by legendary 1940s trainer Ben Jones, while jockey Mike Smith captured his second victory in the 2km classic at Louisville’s Churchill Downs.
“It took a great horse to do what he did today,” Baffert said. “I rank him up there with my top ones. We knew we had something special.”
Favored Justify, who went off at 5-2 odds, unleashed the third-fastest half-mile pace in Derby history and went on to win in 2 minutes, 4.2 seconds, with Good Magic second by two-and-a-half lengths, edging third-place Audible at the line.
Mendelssohn, trained by Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien and hoping to become the first Europe-based horse to win the Derby, was last in the 20-horse field before 157,813 spectators.
Justify, who improved to 4-0, became the first horse since Apollo about 136 years ago to win the showdown for three-year-olds without running the year before.
“It would take a horse like him to break that curse,” Smith said. “Wow, I don’t have the words to describe what makes this horse so special. He is just so big and talented. He has got the mind for it.”
Justify captured the opening leg of US flat racing’s Triple Crown, which continues in two weeks at the Preakness in Baltimore, Maryland, and concludes with next month’s Belmont Stakes in New York.
Only 12 horses in history have swept the treble, Baffert-trained American Pharoah being the most recent in 2015.
“I think this horse is as special as American Pharoah to win a race like this, especially the way he did it,” Baffert said.
Despite a muddy track that absorbed a Derby-day record 7.6cm of rain and intense downpours as horses were loaded into the starting gates, Justify broke well, starting seventh from the rail and settling into second behind early leader Promises Fulfilled.
Justify took the lead on the far turn and charged into the back stretch. Good Magic was in pursuit, but never had a move to prevent him from becoming the sixth consecutive favorite to win the Derby.
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