Updated March 15, 2018 - 7:08 pm
Is Justify the colt to snap the “curse of Apollo” by winning the Kentucky Derby?
Perhaps, but those backing the colt better hope he’s a quick learner and has a street fighter’s mentality.
Before we get to Justify’s chances of defying Derby history, a bit of background:
In 1882, a lightly raced colt by the name of Apollo pulled off an upset for the ages, defeating 4-5 favorite Runnymede on a “muddy” track to win the Kentucky Derby.
Given that was just the eighth Run for the Roses, fans could not have known the rarity of what they had just seen. Since Apollo’s victory, no horse that didn’t race at 2 has won the Derby.
Many have tried. Since 1937, 61 horses have entered the Derby without a race at 2. Their record is a collective “0-fer.” Some have come close — three seconds and five thirds — but Apollo’s mark still stands.
Justify probably will be the next to test the curse. The son of Scat Daddy demolished a maiden special weight field at Santa Anita by 9½ lengths Feb. 18, earning a Beyer speed figure of 104, then came back to romp by 6½ lengths against allowance foes Sunday at the Great Race Place while trying two turns for the first time.
In doing so, Justify registered a 101 Beyer over a “muddy” track, the same figure earned the previous day by Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie as they battled through the stretch in the San Felipe Stakes (Grade 2). The difference was that Justify earned his while coasting through the final quarter mile.
This horse clearly has the talent to break the curse, and he has trainer Bob Baffert in his corner. But remember that 0-for-61 stat and that he has not been challenged, bumped or trapped in a tight spot. And in the Derby, with 20 horses, that can be a fatal flaw.
The best thing for Justify would be a tough test in his final Derby prep, which has not been announced. Otherwise, he had better truly be a superhorse or the curse will be extended come the first Saturday in May.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers continue on the Triple Crown trail this week, taking on Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel Stakes (Grade 2) at Oaklawn Park and the $200,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (Grade 3) at Turfway Park.
In the former, the ’capping crew likes 3-2 morning line favorite Solomini over Magnum Moon (7-2), with Title Ready (8-1) and Sporting Chance (5-1) tied for third.
“Solomini is getting a late start on his Derby run, but I find it hard to use the layoff as a reason to doubt him,” wrote (PonyPicker) Joe Mainardi. “The string of bullet works helps his cause. … One more thing, (jockey Flavien) Prat ships in with him.”
I like the ’cappers top 2, but will box them with High North (12-1), who ran a sneaky good comeback race and attracts Gary Stevens to ride.
In the Jeff Ruby, the handicappers see a wide-open race, narrowly siding with Mugaritz (6-1) over Hazit (co-morning line favorite at 5-1) and Archaggelos (6-1), who tied for second.
I’m parting company with the crew and taking Blended Citizen (6-1), who ran a credible third against a talented filly in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. In exactas, I’ll use him with Pony Up (6-1) and Hazit.
Join the fun next week. Email me or hop on Twitter and search for the #RJhorseracing hashtag.
Ellis Starr’s Rebel Stakes analysis
With a lot of attention being paid to Solomini, a horse like Title Ready is very likely to fly under the radar. Title Ready began his career on turf last summer, then two races later earned his first win in a dirt sprint. After a so-so third place finish in November, Title Ready was given time off to grow up, and grow up he did. When he returned on Feb. 1, Title Ready was a much different horse. Running two turns for the first time as well as adding blinkers, he won with authority and with a good deal of gas left in the tank. The 98 Equibase Speed Figure earned there was a career-best and we can expect much better in his second start off the layoff. As a half-brother to 2016 Iowa Oaks winner Seeking the Title, Title Ready has all the credentials to win an important stakes race for 3-year-olds, and from the ground saving rail jockey Jose Ortiz can get the colt to the front from the start, making him very difficult to run down.
Magnum Moon has only two races under his belt but both were impressive. In his last race, his first try around two turns. The 98 figure was on par with Title Ready’s, and Magnum Moon has similar prospects for improvement in his second route and third career start. Stats Race Lens shows that trainer Todd Pletcher is five for 14 with 3-year-olds in dirt route stakes races over the track over the past five years.
Pryor just broke his maiden last month, in the fourth start of his career, but it was a career-best effort which also earned him a 98 speed figure. Pryor was making his second start following a two month layoff in that race and he too has room to improve. Additionally, trainer Ron Moquett is no stranger to getting horses to run well in big races, having saddled Far Right to a runner-up effort in the 2015 Arkansas Derby and Petrov to finish fourth in this race last year. Pryor is out of the dam Awesome Humor, herself winner of over $800,000, and her other foals have won 12 of 59 route races so there is little doubt Pryor has some class and a shot to run better in the Rebel than his high odds will suggest he can.
Solomini rounds out a quartet of contenders to win the Rebel, making his first start since Dec. 9, when he crossed the line first in the Los Alamitos Futurity before being placed third via a disqualification for interference. Horses behind him in that race have run exceptionally well since then, with McKinzie finishing first in the San Felipe Stakes before being disqualified to second and with third-place finisher Instilled Regard winning the LeComte Stakes in January. Before the Futurity, Solomini finished second behind Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Solomini may need a race before his best considering he has been away from the races for more than three months. On the other hand, trainer Bob Baffert has proven very adept at bringing horses back from long layoffs to run well in stakes races around two turns.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.