Jockey Mike Smith hesitated. He knew he shouldn’t say it, but he said it anyway.
After Justify’s easiest of romps in a first-level, optional-claiming allowance March 11 at Santa Anita Park, the Hall of Fame rider immediately thought of another chestnut.
“I hate to compare him to other horses right now, but doesn’t he remind you of Easy Goer way back in the day? A big old red horse with that big, powerful stride?” said Smith, who served as the de facto spokesman in front of the media after the one-mile race, with trainer Bob Baffert on a flight to the Ocala Breeders’ Sales March 2-year-olds sale.
In just his second start, the 3-year-old Scat Daddy colt owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm could not have been more impressive.
Justify settled three wide—outside of Shivermetimbers and Tap Fever—and stalked loose early leader Calexman in the first turn on the muddy (sealed) Santa Anita main track. He stayed wide in the backstretch, then went on the attack in the final turn. Without any asking from Smith, Justify breezed by Calexman and was never challenged the rest of the way.
“That came so natural,” Smith said. “He switched leads and just naturally opened up his stride, and he was two (lengths) in front. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I didn’t ask him to move. He just did that extremely easy.”
The final margin was 6 1/2 lengths over Shivermetimbers—who finished fourth and seventh in a pair of grade 3 Triple Crown prep races this season—but Justify was geared down to a gallop late and stopped the clock for the mile in 1:35.73. He paid $2.10 to win, place, and show and created a rare minus pool on each wager.
“The distance didn’t seem to bother him,” Smith said. “I know that was just a mile, but he could have galloped another quarter-mile if he had to.”
Justify’s performance was also pleasing to his trainer, who watched the race during his flight to Florida. The colt is expected to show up in a Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) prep next, although a specific race target has not been set. Justify debuted Feb. 18 at Santa Anita with a 9 1/2-length victory in a seven-furlong maiden special weight event. He wore blinkers in his debut but went without them Sunday.
“Perfect race,” Baffert said via text message from the air. “Glad he passed the two-turn test. Trackman (Dennis Moore) has done an outstanding job to keep the track fast and safe.”
Bred in Kentucky by John Gunther, out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic, Justify was a $500,000 purchase by China Horse Club and Maverick Racing out of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.