A lot of rain in Louisville and a very muddy track couldn’t dampen the spirits at the 144th Kentucky Derby on Saturday as Justify ridden by Mike Smith won the historic race.
The three-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert started off Derby weekend as a 5-2 favorite, followed by UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn (5-1), who was aiming to be the first European-trained horse to win the Run for the Roses.
However, Justify handled the soggy conditions with ease to win by 2 1/2 lengths in 2 minutes 4.20 seconds, while Mendelssohn struggled out of the gate and ended dead last.
Good Magic was second and Audible, who is backed by Amazon’s audiobook, came in third.
Last year, Always Dreaming ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Todd Pletcher won the 2017 Kentucky Derby after starting at 9-2 odds.
Justify has now completed the first stage of the Triple Crown in an attempt to follow in the hoof-steps of American Pharoah (also trained by Baffert) in 2015, who went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes with jockey Victor Espinoza.
“He’s got that ‘it’ factor,” Smith said after the race. “He is so above average, he’s got unbelievable talent, and he’s got a mind to go with it. He was loving this stuff. My main concern was getting him out of the gate … He’s so talented, it’s unbelievable. I knew if I could get him out of there, he could go fast because that’s how good he is. Once we jumped well, I basically stepped out of the way and kept a leg on each side and my mind out of the way,” he added.
“I just feel blasted lucky to have a horse like this,” legendary trainer Baffert told reporters in the post-race press conference at Churchill Downs. “This horse came around, the first time we worked him I thought we had something really special. After his maiden win I thought the timer was wrong, I really didn’t think he ran that fast.
“Winning the Santa Anita Derby, we knew how special he was. I couldn’t believe the weather [today], I was feeling really bad. We were ready to head out the gate the moment they crossed the wire. But he broke clean and I knew that he wasn’t going to lay down,” he said. “It’s like having LeBron James on your team, you’d better win a championship with him.”
“The weather” Baffert referred to involved three inches of rain that fell constantly all day, making it the wettest Derby on record — breaking the previous record set in 1918.
By winning the Derby without running as a two-year-old, the chestnut colt also broke the 136-year-old “Apollo Curse,” named after Apollo who was the last horse to perform that feat in 1882. At 52, Smith is now the second-oldest jockey to win the Derby, he last won in 2005 on Giacomo.
Having been run every year since 1875, the 1¼ mile race offers up a winning purse of $2 million — but, of course, the winning horse becomes far more valuable when sent to stud.
Justify will now return to his home stable at Santa Anita, California, before heading to the Preakness Stakes on May 19, which will air live on NBC.