Justify (Mike Smith) claims the 144th Kentucky Derby beneath the lights and the Twin Spires at a murky Churchill Downs
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Report: USA, Saturday
Churchill Downs: Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) 1m2f | dirt | 3yo
European hopes of a historic Kentucky Derby victory from Mendelssohn were driven into the mud as he finished stone last at a filthy Churchill Downs, where the much vaunted Justify (Bob Baffert/Mike Smith) delivered on the hype with a hugely impressive performance.
In front of a crowd of 157,813 at the official count assaulted by torrential rain all day beneath the Twin Spires, the imposing chestnut specimen raced close to the pace before taking over on the far turn and then grinding it out down the stretch to beat last year’s two-year-old champion Good Magic by two and a half lengths, with Audible the same distance away in third.
Fulfilling the hype: Justify powers home to win the Kentucky Derby under Mike Smith
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“Him, American Pharoah and Arrogate are cut from a different cloth, they’re great,” said Bob Baffert, winning America’s most celebrated race for the fifth time in a legendary career. “It took a great horse to do what he did – I rank him up there with my top horses.”
Jockey Mike Smith was in no mood to disagree. “He’s just something else,” said the rider known as ‘Big Money Mike’ owing to his penchant for winning the most lucrative races. “I can’t describe how special this horse is. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s just well above average and he’s got the mind to go with it. For such a young horse he’s just so big and talented.”
Justify, a son of Scat Daddy, was returned 5-2 favourite on the pari-mutuel, where he is the sixth winning favourite in a row. The winner was breaking a Derby hoodoo in becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without having run as a two-year-old.
Justify (blue noseband, middle) sits just outside leader Promises Fulfilled (right) as the field heads into the first turn in the Kentucky Derby
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Another Kentucky Derby hoodoo remains fully intact, however, in that no European-trained horse has ever won the roses. In that context, having crossed the Atlantic on the back of such expectation, Mendelssohn can only be regarded as a bitter disappointment.
Frankly, the Aidan O’Brien colt – like the winner, a son of Scat Daddy – endured a horrible time under Ryan Moore. The Kentucky Derby is billed as the ‘greatest two minutes in sports’; well, not for Ballydoyle it wasn’t.
Considered the best chance of a European winner in the 144-year history of America’s most celebrated race, Mendelssohn did not win. Boy, did he not win. In fact, he finished last of the 20 runners, banged about by other horses after a slowish break and never a serious factor thereafter.
If everything went his way in the UAE Derby, precisely nothing went his way on this occasion and the result was a display as abject as Meydan was spectacular. Presumably, nobody connected with Ballydoyle will ever need reminding quite how tough a race this can be. At least they had Saxon Warrior to go home to.