Justify makes history beats Apollo’s 136-year-old curse to win the 144th Kentucky Derby

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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It was a history-making day at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. On May 5, 2018, the odds-on favorite Justify won the 144th Kentucky Derby. Still, Justify beat the odds stacked against him, winning on the rainiest day in derby history on a muddy track after three inches of rain, while becoming only the second horse in history to win the derby after not running during his two-year-old season. The 2017 champion two-year-old and Eclipse award winner Good Magic came in a surprise second, with Audible coming in third. This is the first year the Kentucky Derby’s purse was doubled to 2 million. While trainer Bob Baffert picked up his fifth derby win, the second most in history.

The undefeated Justify won all three races he ran in 2018, including the Santa Anita Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race. Hall of fame jockey Mike Smith, 52 rode Justify to his second derby victory. Breaking from the seventh gate, the 3-1 odds-on favorite, rode in his comfort spot of second place in the backstretch behind Promises Fulfilled. Then Justify went to first at the 3/4-mile marker and never looked back. Early on rival Bolt d'Oro tried to catch up, then fell back. Towards the last turn, Good Magic had a good try, but in the end, barely beat Audible for second place. Even in the steady heavy rain, Justify did not have any mud on his face as he crossed the finished line by two and a half lengths, finishing the 1 ¼ mile race in 2:04.20. He earned $1,432,000, the largest purse for a Kentucky Derby winner.

Justify was one of two horses running in this year's derby, who did not have their maiden race as a two-year-old, the other was Magnum Moon. There has not been a horse since the gelding Apollo, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1882, to win without starting as a two-year-old. The draught has become known as the Curse of Apollo. In the intervening 136 years, 61 horses have made the attempt and failed. Eight came close, two finished second, while five finished third. ESPN noted, “The best of that lot were arguably Hall of Famers Coaltown (lost to 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation), Forego (lost to Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1973) and Curlin (lost to Street Sense in 2007).” Justify did not race because he needed to grow into his massive size. Like Apollo, Justify is a chestnut, but with a white blaze.

The curse had practical reasons up until the turn of this century, where horses ran races in the double digits before reaching the derby. Now key races allow horses to accumulate points, and they are given more time in-between races. The last Kentucky Derby winner to have more than 10 starts was California Chrome in 2014, who was a two-time Eclipse award-winning horse of the year. Justify’s three wins are in line with another famed derby winner Big Brown in 2008.

Baffert tried to compare Justify to his other recent great horses, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Breeder’s, Pegasus and Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate. Baffert told the press, “Him and American Pharoah and Arrogate, these horses are cut from a different… They are just so great.” Baffert also complimented his champion horse, saying, "I was just in awe of the performance. That’s the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I brought up here." Jockey Smith, who has won 5,000 races including the 2005 derby on Giacomo, also did not mince words of praise. Smith expressed, “I can’t describe how special this horse is, I don’t have the words for it.”

This is the sixth year in a row the favorite has won, the longest stretch in history. If Justify is anything like Baffert's last derby winner American Pharoah, he might just end up winning the Triple Crown. The next jewel is the Preakness Stakes on May 19, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and then the Belmont Stakes on June 9 in Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.