By Steve Sherack
LOUISVILLE, Ky – A few hours before being installed as the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the 144th renewal of the GI Kentucky Derby, all eyes were on the unbeaten ‘TDN Rising Star’ Justify (Scat Daddy) Tuesday morning beneath the Twin Spires.
With temperatures a bit more comfortable in the high 40s and rapidly on the rise (the mercury hit as high as 81 in the afternoon) during the 15-minute training window reserved exclusively for Derby/Oaks horses at 7:30 a.m., the GI Santa Anita Derby hero quickly made his presence felt jogging the wrong way. He was accompanied to the track by Bob Baffert’s longtime right-hand man Jimmy Barnes, who was aboard a stable pony.
Under a snug hold while making his first trip to the track since shipping in from Southern California Monday afternoon, the physically imposing $500,000 KEESEP graduate put on a show while displaying that massive stride of his during a routine gallop of about a mile beneath Humberto Gomez.
The equally lightly raced Juddmonte homebred Hofburg (Tapit) of three career starts, meanwhile, stood by the chute and took in the hectic scene for a bit, which included a couple of peeks back at the long line of photographers and media lined up by the rail on the backstretch. Hall of Famer Bill Mott watched from horseback as one of this week’s ‘buzz horses’ turned in another very good-looking gallop.
The aforementioned Justify wasn’t the only blaze-faced, flashy chestnut to make a striking appearance Tuesday morning. Last year’s champion 2-year-old colt Good Magic (Curlin) wasn’t to be outdone as he came roaring off the clubhouse turn during his 1 1/2-mile gallop.
Two-time Grade I winner and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) was another who quickly caught the eye. Sporting a pair of bell boots, he had a very nice bounce in his step as he made his way on from the Lukas gap and jogged along the outer rail.
Currently on the outside looking in, Derby also-eligible Blended Citizen (Proud Citizen) couldn’t be looking any better physically for two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill. He was a troubled fifth last time in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S.
Exercise rider Nick Bush–also the regular a.m. partner of last year’s Derby winner Always Dreaming (Bodemeister)-was all smiles exiting the track aboard the unbeaten ‘TDN Rising Star’ Magnum Moon (Malibu Moon). And you can certainly see why after watching the GI Arkansas Derby hero train at Churchill Downs the past few days.
The fillies were also out in full force and strutting their stuff during this time frame, including leading Oaks contenders and GI Central Bank Ashland S. one-two Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) and Eskimo Kisses (To Honor and Serve) and G3 UAE Oaks heroine Rayya (Tiz Wonderful).
It was quite the scene back at the Baffert barn once it was time to get the big horse cleaned up. One of the major story lines of this year’s Derby-and rightfully so-is how the inexperienced Justify will handle everything thrown his way on gameday before a crowd of 150,000 plus.
Well, he certainly passed this first test with flying colors as he never even turned a hair as he was surrounded by an American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) type of a crowd back at Barn 33 while getting his bath.
Even his barnmate Solomini (Curlin), runner-up in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, had to wait for the seas to part to get back inside his own barn.
Welcome to Derby week.