‘Bob Baffert has the horse to beat.’ Can Justify overcome a 136-year-old Derby curse?

Kentucky Derby entrant Justify runs during a morning workout at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in Louisville, Ky. The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 5.
Kentucky Derby entrant Justify runs during a morning workout at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in Louisville, Ky. The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 5. AP

Bob Baffert has walked this walk before.

With four Kentucky Derby victories, the Hall of Fame trainer knows what it takes to win America's most famous race. In addition, he trained the only Triple Crown winner – American Pharoah – in the past 40 years.

For Saturday's 144th Kentucky Derby, Baffert thinks he has another special horse, an undefeated superstar on the rise. Running away from his competition in his only three starts, Justify will be the likely Derby favorite. In his stakes debut, he led a tough Santa Anita Derby field gate-to-wire.

But the impressive chestnut colt must beat more than his 19 rivals in Saturday's starting gate; he has to overcome a curse. Horsemen call it the "curse of Apollo," the last Derby winner without a start at age 2. That was 1882. Back then, it was only the eighth running of the Kentucky Derby. Horse training has evolved in the 136 years since.

"The Apollo thing, it comes up a lot," Baffert said. "I think the game has changed; horses don't run as often as 2-year-olds as they used to. Trainers take their time."

The argument behind the curse is that a young horse needs to develop a foundation with racing experience as a juvenile before taking on the rigors of the Triple Crown.

"I'd rather have a really talented horse over a horse that's seasoned that's just par with the rest of them." Baffert said. "(Breaking the curse) is going to happen. Whether it happens this year or whatever, it's going to happen."

Since 1937, 61 horses have run in the Derby without a start at age 2; they've all failed. It's not the curse but the competition, Baffert said. And this Derby appears exceptionally deep.

"It's probably the most competitive Derby I’ve seen in years," said Baffert, a Derby regular since 1996.

International star Mendelssohn looks like Justify's main rival. Both are sons of the sire Scat Daddy, who was injured in the 2007 Derby.

Winner of the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, Mendelssohn romped home by 18 lengths in the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai. A $3 million Kentucky-bred yearling, he's also competed in England and Ireland.

Royally bred, he's a half-brother to four-time champion mare Beholder and the young stallion Into Mischief. (Coincidentally, Into Mischief is the sire of Florida Derby winner Audible, another Kentucky Derby entrant. That makes Mendelssohn Audible's uncle.)

"The three most impressive performances this spring were Justify, Mendelssohn and Audible," said NBC race commentator Randy Moss. "It's a very, very deep field and a very, very fast field. Justify, how good is he? We don't know yet. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn has the best trainer in the world, Aiden O'Brien, and the best jockey in the world, Ryan Moore, and they're both trying to win their first Kentucky Derby."

Besides the likely favorites, 2017 juvenile champion Good Magic enters the Derby off a convincing score in the Blue Grass Stakes. Bolt D'Oro, who Justify beat in the Santa Anita Derby, should be in the mix along with Noble Indy, Magnum Moon, Vino Rosso and My Boy Jack, who all enter the Derby off victories.

Baffert brought a second horse, too: Solomini, who has the same connections as 2015's American Pharoah.

Justify is owned in partnership by WinStar Farm, which has two other Derby starters: Audible and Noble Indy.

Racing luck will have a lot to do with the outcome.

"I’ve been there with the best horses that God made, and I know what it’s like," Baffert said. "You can never take anything for granted, you just got to go day by day and get there and hope everything goes your way."

Besides his victories, Baffert knows what it's like to come to the Derby with an absolute cinch only to flop.

"The thing about Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse," he said. "It just happens. You can't force it. You can't make it happen.

"I've been really fortunate to have some really good horses," he added. "Point Given, I thought he couldn't lose (in 2001). He ran fast, didn't win. That was so disappointing because I really thought he could win the Triple Crown."

Justify always has had Baffert thinking big.

"The first time I worked him (at Santa Anita), I knew he was something really special," Baffert said. "He looks amazing,” said jockey Mike Smith, who is trying for his second Derby win.

“He’s just athletic, looks happy. That’s all you can look for – and you don’t know until they run – but he sure looks the part (of a champion).”

Retired jockey Jerry Bailey, now an NBC commentator, loves Justify, too.

"No doubt about it, Bob Baffert has the horse to beat," Bailey said. "If I had to choose a horse to ride, Justify is the fastest. He's the one I'd pick. But you don't know how he'll handle (Derby Day). None of these horses have ever seen what it will be like Saturday with 160,000 screaming fans."

Saturday's Louisville weather forecast includes a threat of afternoon thunder showers.

“A little rain is good for this racetrack but really it doesn’t matter,” Baffert said. “I don’t worry about any of that and I don’t worry about anything I can’t change.”

That includes the curse.

"Crazy things happen in the Derby," Baffert said. "With 20 horses, you never know."

144th Kentucky Derby

When: Post time 3:46 p.m. PDT Saturday