Op/Ed: Derby Too Much, Too Soon for Justify | TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video

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By Bill Finley

I realize my telling Bob Baffert how to train and manage a horse is right up there with my asking to give Sinatra singing lessons or telling Picasso I have some suggestions on how he should use more blue in his paintings. But Baffert is talking about pointing Justify (Scat Daddy) to the GI Kentucky Derby, and here are my two cents: forget about it.

There’s no doubting this horse has talent, perhaps, extraordinary talent. When he broke his maiden Feb. 18 by 9 1/2 lengths, while earning a 104 Beyer figure, Justify became the talk of the sport. Fast horse, talented trainer, good pedigree, smart ownership in WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club and SF Racing LLC. He has everything going for him, everything but time, which is not on his side.

When you break your maiden on Feb. 18 in impressive fashion, you might be a Grade I winner, just not a Kentucky Derby winner. Justify broke his maiden one day shy of 11 weeks prior to the Derby. The obstacles that stand in the way of him and a victory in the Derby seem insurmountable, ones that are so difficult that few trainers would even dream of trying to pull of what seems impossible.

But Baffert was surprisingly upbeat about his chances of getting Justify to the Derby after the race and said he had a plan to do so. He’s has little to say since.

By text, he told me last week, “All my plans are on hold. No need to rush him back. Too early to tell [if he could make the Derby]. Let the horse tell us.”

Yet, it still seems like Baffert and the owners are seriously thinking about the Derby. Though it’s unclear where they got the information, the Daily Racing Form‘s “Derby Watch” lists Justify’s next race as the March 25 Sunland Derby. If you are indeed pointing for the Derby, the Sunland race makes sense. It’s normally not that tough of a spot and it offers 50 qualifying points for the Derby. Should Justify win, which would be far from a surprise, he would surely have enough points to make the Derby field.

But making the Derby field, winning the Derby and even belonging in the Derby are three separate issues. The Sunland race is six weeks before the Derby and it would be doubtful that Baffert would given him another prep before May 6. That would mean he’d be running a horse in the Kentucky Derby that didn’t start his career until 11 weeks before the race and came in with only two career starts.

Could he pull it off? It’s unlikely, but, actually, not impossible. Baffert is a magician and Justify may be just that good. This is one of those risk and reward scenarios and the reward is obvious–a win in the Kentucky Derby.

But what Baffert and the ownership group cannot overlook are the risks, and they are big ones. The Kentucky Derby is the toughest race in America and it chews up and spits out horses–experienced horses who have raced six, seven, eight times, who have not been rushed into the race and started as 2-year-olds. With any horse coming into the race 11 weeks after his debut and in his third lifetime start you’re taking a huge chance that they’ll never again be the same. Is it worth the risk?

One of the ironies of this situation is that no trainer of late has had more success than Baffert has had with horses that were not rushed into the Triple Crown series. Baffert has trained the last two 3-year-old champions, West Coast (Flatter) and Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song). Arrogate did not make his debut until April 17 of his 3-year-old year and we know how he turned out. West Coast made his debut exactly one year prior to Justify’s first start. While he ran second, he showed enough talent that Baffert had him in the GIII Lexington S. by his third start. He also finished second there, not earning enough points for the Derby. But rather than rush him into the GI Preakness S. or GI Belmont S., Baffert went the slow and steady route, the Easy Goer, the GIII Los Alamitos Derby and then unleashed a monster in the GI Travers S.

Today, West Coast is arguably the best horse in training. And with him and Arrogate, at the end of the day and when the stud deals are being negotiated, no one cares that neither one so much as ran in a Triple Crown race, let alone won one. The same will go for Justify, if he’s that good and if he’s pointed to a late spring, summer campaign.

So how about this for a plan? Keep telling everyone you’re planning on the Derby to throw the competition off guard. That way you can sneak Justify into the March 11 one-mile allowance at Santa Anita and get the race to fill. Next up is your stakes debut in the May 5 GIII Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs, then the June 9 Easy Goer S. at Belmont. From there, Baffert should have the horse right where he wants him so far as seasoning goes, so he can pick spots that can include the GI Haskell Invitational, the Travers, the GI Pennsylvania Derby, the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic and the GI Pegasus World Cup. That’s the same Pegasus World Cup that, in 2018, didn’t include a single winner of a 2017 Triple Crown race, and only one horse, Gunnevera (Dialed In), who so much as ran in a 2017 Triple Crown event. The others–and that’s a lot of horses–were all spent by then.

Okay, so maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself and, yes, it’s premature to already conclude off one race that Justify is another Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song) or Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}). But there’s the short-range plan–defy all conventional wisdom and run this horse in the Kentucky Derby. And there’s the long-range plan–take your time, have a healthy and fresh horse for big races later on in the year and quite possibly win a boat load of money, many Grade I’s and the 3-year-old championship.

The long-range plan is more rational and will probably reap more dividends by the time Justify has been retired and, presumably, sent off to stud. I know my opinion doesn’t matter. I also know that starting a horse with so little seasoning in the Derby is asking for trouble.


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