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Why Justify Won the Kentucky Derby

Why Justify Won the Kentucky Derby

Each Kentucky Derby unfolds in its own unique way. We may try to compare Derbies of yesteryear to those of the present day, but each has its own idiosyncratic attributes. Still, the Derby’s rich history lends itself naturally to comparisons that put great performances in context.

The 144th running of the Derby will go down in history as the wettest Derby on record with 2.6 inches of rain drenching the main track. More importantly, it will be remembered for Justify dispelling the “Curse of Apollo,” becoming the first horse unraced in his juvenile season to win the Kentucky Derby since Apollo did so in 1882.

Justify’s immense talent is the main reason that he won the 2018 Derby, but his ability to get in a “happy rhythm” and settle in the third-quarter mile of the race, then take over when asked, was the key.


Digging deeper into the way that the race was run and won in quagmire-like circumstances under a steady downpour, there’s some additional history that was made, and it’s not just how fast the race was run early. Many are talking about how fast the opening quarter-mile was run (22.24 seconds) and how it was the sixth-fastest opening quarter-mile of all time, but there’s more to discuss.

After realizing that the third-quarter mile of the race was run in a slow 25.24 seconds, I did some research and analysis, and I found that this year’s third quarter was the slowest run in the past 40 years!

The last time that the third quarter of the race was run in 25 1/5 seconds was when Affirmed won the 1978 Kentucky Derby. Affirmed would go on to win the Triple Crown, and there are comparisons made later in this article to make sense of this relation.

As I sat drenched in the post-race press conference, I started watching the race replay. I calculated the third quarter time and realized that the 25.24 seconds were slower than anything that I had seen while analyzing this millennium’s data to prepare my annual Derby Pace Thesis.

I wanted to figure out what happened in the race for such a slow third quarter to come to fruition. Maybe it was just the track conditions, but I wanted to learn more, so during the post-race press conference, I asked Hall-of-Famer and two-time Derby-winning jockey Mike Smith a question to try to unlock why Justify was able to attend such fast fractions early in the race and dismiss all rivals on multiple occasions, including late to pull away by 2 1/2 lengths.

“After getting on a fast pace, you were able to slow down the third quarter to 25.24 seconds,” I said. “Talk about that key point in the race and if Justify just has different gears to be able to shut off and back on when needed.”

“I’d like to tell you that I planned that, but it doesn’t quite work that way,” Smith said. “You know, honestly, when you get a horse with this kind of talent and a stride like his, it’s just about getting into a rhythm. You get them into a really nice, happy rhythm, they’re going to run. It’s just a matter of if you can hold the closers off. He’s going to run his race.”

A racehorse is a flesh-and-blood animal and cannot be put into different gears like a race car, but the analogy of a horse having “gears” is often used in our sport. Still, it’s important to note what Smith said about a horse’s rhythm and how an exceptional athlete like Justify will “run his race” when comfortable.

A lot of history was made on Saturday, but it wasn’t until I did more research that I realized the importance of what I had asked Smith and this race’s third-quarter mile historical significance. Let’s go back through the race here and make some historical comparisons later in this article to put the race shape of the 2018 Kentucky Derby in context.

The field breaks from the gate (Credit: Coady Photography)

The First Quarter

After a good break from gate 7, Smith did a masterful job of pumping his right clenched fist twice to Justify’s shoulder, coercing him to get going immediately. They set up shop to the outside of the pace-setter, Promises Fulfilled, following him into the clubhouse turn as Promises Fulfilled set a blazing 22.24 seconds for the first-quarter mile.

Justify ran 1 length off of Promises Fulfilled and completed his opening quarter-mile in 22.33 seconds, the fastest ever run by a horse that would end up wearing the Roses. The previous record was held by Bold Forbes, the front-running 1976 victor that ran the opening quarter-mile in 22 2/5 seconds.

After the field of 20 horses ran at 40 miles-per-hour into a driving rain only 50 feet in front of me, I felt the ground shake under my feet while 160,000 people screamed at the top of their lungs. Once they passed by the stretch for the first time, I turned my attention to the big screen in the infield. When the first-quarter mile time flashed on the screen, I turned to the Racing Dudes’ Aaron Halterman and said, “Damn, that’s fast!”

Most on-lookers were thinking the same thing, and they were right. With a horse running that fast early, the worry that Justify was too close to the early pace to be able to win flooded my thoughts worse than the 2.6 inches of rain were flooding my shoes.

The field passes the stretch for the first time (Credit: Coady Photography)

The Second Quarter

Hoping that the pace would slow down around the turn, Smith continued to follow Promises Fulfilled through the first half-mile in 45.77 seconds. I thought that the time was still fast, but not horrible.

The half-mile time turned out to be only the sixth-fastest in the past 18 years, indicating that the pace was already slowing down. Maybe the track condition slowed them down, or maybe both Promises Fulfilled and Justify were showing the ability to settle into stride.

It’s been said exhaustively, but in the new Derby points era (now in its sixth year), pure sprinters don’t make the Derby gate. Both Promises Fulfilled and Justify won two-turn Graded Stakes prep races and proved that they could set easy fractions, if allowed, in those races.

Even though they needed to go fast the first time down the stretch of the Derby, exerting early energy in order to obtain precious forward position going into the clubhouse turn, they were able to “shut it off” when needed.

In contrast to the pure sprint speed that had previously made the gate under the pre-points system (where graded stakes earnings qualified entries for the Derby), the new Derby points system is getting proper route runners into the gate. As a result, the middle fractions have been slower for the most part because these routers are settling after the early stages of the race.

Promises Fulfilled leads Justify into the first turn (Credit: Coady Photography)

The Third Quarter

With Justify still sitting in second down the backside, the race suddenly got much slower. The time through the opening three-quarter mile was a moderate 1:11.01 and accounts for only the ninth-fastest in the past 18 years. The time would categorize the race to this point as a moderate pace overall (as I predicted in my Derby Pace Thesis).

How did the race go from being the sixth-fastest all-time in the opening quarter-mile, to only the ninth-fastest in the past 18 years by the end of the third-quarter mile point? It was absolutely mind-boggling to me, even in real time. Watching the race on the rail across from the 1/16 pole, I looked over at Halterman and said, “Wow, that’s the 1:11 flat I predicted. He’s gonna have enough horse left!”

To gather more clues as to why this major slow-down occurred, we’ll return to Smith’s response during the press conference.

“I felt very confident down the backside,” Smith continued. “At the 3/8 pole, we put Promises Fulfilled away. I was able to just sit just for a little bit, and he took some air in. As soon as I called on him again, he jumped right back into the bridle and was all racehorse at that point.”

The final two fractions slowed down dramatically, going only 26.34 seconds from the third-quarter mile to the mile and 26.85 seconds in the last quarter mile. During the race’s final stages, Justify was still the fastest and held off all challengers in the stretch.

As Smith said, when Justify was able to take “some air in,” he got his second wind and couldn’t be beat.

Justify cruises to the wire (Credit: Coady Photography)

Historical Context

A disclaimer before diving into a bunch of fractional times over many years: it’s fully understood that track conditions from year-to-year change significantly, and this year’s track was the wettest in Derby history. Without accounting for track conditions, let’s dive into the race’s raw historical times and draw some comparisons.

To demonstrate what usually happens when horses run fast early, let’s first compare this year’s Derby to the fastest in recent years, when Songandprayer went 22.25 seconds for the opening quarter-mile in 2001.

According to the chart, Justify’s opening quarter-mile was run in almost the same exact time, but the difference is that Songandaprayer kept on going fast over a fast track. He ran his half-mile in 44.86 seconds, almost a full second faster than Promises Fulfilled, then ran the three-quarter mile in 1:09.25 minutes, exactly 1.76 seconds faster.

Not surprisingly, Songandaprayer faded to finish 13th. The winner, Monarchos, sat in 13th early and was 16 lengths behind at the half-mile point. Monarchos was able to close late for the win because he was not involved with the early blazing fractions.

If Justify didn’t settle early, then he would’ve likely met the same demise as Songandaprayer. Promises Fulfilled faded to finish 15th, so even with sensible mid-fractions this year, he didn’t have Justify’s talent or stamina to hold on late.

Going back in time for more historical comparisons, I went through every Derby since 1973 (the first year of the graded stakes system) to find what Derbies also had the third quarter  of the race run in 25 seconds or more. Besides 2018, it has happened only six times in the past 46 years:

Note that 1991 was the first year in which races were timed in hundredths. Prior to 1991, races were timed in fifths of seconds and are shown and calculated as such in the table above.

Importantly, in five of the six races listed above, the first quarter-mile times were run in under 23 seconds. It’s expected that if horses run fast early, then they’ll begin slowing down as early as the third-quarter mile into the race.

The chart below shows the position of the winner at each point of call and adds some context to how these races were won.

Only two winners in these six races before Justify were near the early pace and held on to win: Smarty Jones in 2004 and Affirmed in 1978.

What’s eerily similar between Smarty Jones and Justify’s Derby wins is that the sloppy track conditions were the same 14 years apart. When I asked veteran photographers at this year’s Derby if it had ever been this rainy, many of them said that 2004 was just like this. Additionally, when I wrote the Derby Pace Thesis, the 2004 Derby was noted as a key race to compare to 2018, with an expected similar pace dynamic. Affirmed’s Derby was run over a fast track, and Brisnet past performances don’t exist from 1978, so unfortunately, we’ll never know how that one lines up.

Smarty Jones would win the Preakness Stakes before losing the Belmont Stakes by only 1 length in his attempt for a Triple Crown. Affirmed is the 11th Triple Crown winner and an all-time great.

The numbers from Justify’s Derby put him in the same category as Smarty Jones and Affirmed. The fact that he was on a hot pace and held off all challengers late supports the notion that he is a special horse that has a very good chance to capture a Triple Crown (if he can stay healthy and in good form).

Will Justify become the lucky 13th Triple Crown winner? Or, is a horse like Birdstone lurking to take him down, like what happened to Smarty Jones?

The next five weeks along the Triple Crown trail are always enthralling, but historical data hints that Justify may soon put himself amongst the all-time greats.

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