Now that calendars have been flipped over to July, it is time for this column’s rankings of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of the year.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make my list for a variety of reasons, such as:
--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game in victory or defeat.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
And now here is my list of the Top 10 performances from Jan. 1 through June 30:
10. ACCELERATE in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on a wet-fast main track March 10. (Owned by Hronis Racing; trained by John Sadler; ridden by Victor Espinoza.)
Coming into this race, many questioned whether Accelerate had what it took to win a 1 1/4-mile race. In his only start beyond 1 1/8 miles prior to this, he had finished third, well behind Collected and Arrogate, in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles last year. But Accelerate’s defeat in the Pacific Classic probably stemmed more from how well Collected and Arrogate ran on that particular occasion rather than Accelerate not having the sufficient stamina.
Accelerate’s resounding 5 1/2-length victory in this year’s Santa Anita Handicap proved that the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Lookin At Lucky colt can get the job done in a Grade I race at 1 1/4 miles. Sadler said after this win in the Big ’Cap that they had passed up the $16 million Pegasus World Cup and $10 million Dubai World Cup with Accelerate to run him in this $600,000 race at Santa Anita.
To win the Big ’Cap, a race so rich in history, was especially meaningful to longtime Southern California trainer Sadler.
“For me, it’s as good as it gets, being a California boy,” Sadler said.
9. UNIQUE BELLA in Santa Anita’s Grade I Beholder Mile at one mile on dirt June 2. (Owned by Don Alberto Stable; trained by Jerry Hollendorfer; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Unique Bella won Santa Anita’s Grade II Santa Maria Stakes at 1 1/16 miles by nine lengths and recorded a 109 Beyer Speed Figure on Feb. 10. The 109 is the highest Beyer by a filly or mare around two turns during the first half of 2018.
But I believe Unique Bella’s Beholder Mile was a better performance than her Santa Maria. That’s because the Beholder Mile, in my opinion, was a much harder race to win.
In the Beholder Mile, Unique Bella and multiple Grade I winner Paradise Woods staged a spirited head-and-head duel through the early stages. Unique Bella shook clear coming into the stretch, sported a healthy four-length advantage at the eighth pole and won by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:35.60 as the 1-2 favorite. The early pace battle proved too much for Paradise Woods, who weakened and finished third, 5 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up, 24-1 longshot La Force.
This was the second Grade I victory for Unique Bella, a 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred Tapit filly. She also won the Grade I La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita last Dec. 26.
8. ACCELERATE in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita at 1 1/4 miles on dirt May 26. (Owned by Hronis Racing; trained by John Sadler; ridden by Victor Espinoza.)
After racing a close-up third early, Accelerate did just that with about a furlong to go to take command. He went on to win by 4 1/4 lengths at the odds of 9-5. Dr. Dorr, off at 7-2, finished second. City of Light, the 6-5 favorite, came in third.
Accelerate registered a final time of 2:01.38. He was assigned a career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure. His previous top Beyer had been a 110 twice. He recorded a 110 when he won this year’s Santa Anita Handicap and also when third in last year’s Pacific Classic.
7. ARMY MULE in Aqueduct’s Grade I Carter Handicap at seven furlongs on dirt April 7. (Owned by St. Elias Stable; trained by Todd Pletcher; ridden by Joe Bravo.)
In only his third career start, Army Mule won emphatically by 6 1/4 lengths in a splendid 1:20.94. The Beyer Speed Figure for the 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred Friesan Fire ridgling was calculated to be a 114.
“You don’t expected to win a Grade I by that many lengths,” Pletcher said. “I didn’t even think the track is that fast today. He’s really something special. We felt good coming into the race. My biggest concern was that it was only his third race and he was giving up a lot of seasoning to some other horses. But he showed us he deserved a chance, and I’m glad it worked out.”
6. RESTLESS RIDER in Churchill Downs’ Debutante at six furlongs on dirt June 30. (Owned by Fern Circle Stables and Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Ken McPeek.)
This is a good example of the type of performance that’s worthy of making this list. In this race, Restless Rider:
--Won by a big margin as the even-money favorite while showing brilliance. Outrun early in this six-furlong affair, the 2-year-old Kentucky-bred Distorted Humor filly swept to the front entering the stretch and drew off to win by 11 1/4 lengths.
--Overcame adversity. Just before reaching far turn, Restless Rider was racing along the inside rail, just behind the leader, Payntermaniac. As Payntermaniac entered the far turn, all of a sudden something went amiss. She took a bad step to abruptly break stride and quickly dropped back before being pulled up.
Entering the far turn, while Restless Rider was racing right behind Payntermaniac, Restless Rider was taken up sharply when severely impeded by the stopping rival. Despite this being only a six-furlong race, Restless Rider not only overcame the adversity, she won by a big margin. Her final time was 1:10.62 was much faster than the 1:12.77 clocking put on the board later in the day at Churchill by a colt, Sir Truebadour, when he won the Grade III Bashford Manor Stakes by two lengths at the same six-furlong distance.
--Achieved something historic. This was the 118th running of the Debutante. Restless Rider’s 11 1/4-length margin of victory was largest in the history of this race, which was first run in 1895. The previous record was 11 lengths by Sweet Little Lady in 1977.
Brian Hernandez Jr., Restless Rider’s jockey, said: “That was super impressive. You don’t really see young horses like this recover as she did.”
Shanghai Rain, trained by Bret Calhoun, finished second. Beach Getaway, conditioned by Ben Colebrook, ended up third in the field of eight.
“It looks like a really, really nice filly won the race,” Calhoun said. “She took all the worst of it and got stopped hard, and came back and won.”
“Nobody was beating the winner today,” Colebrook said. “That was probably the most impressive 2-year-old performance of the year, if not the last couple. That was freakish.”
5. JUSTIFY in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on dirt April 7. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
The Santa Anita Derby originally was to have been a rematch between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie. Bafffert trains McKinzie and Justify. But McKinzie missed the Santa Anita Derby due to a minor hock injury. Baffert then called an audible and decided to run Justify in the Santa Anita Derby instead of the Grade I Arkansas Derby a week later at Oaklawn Park as originally planned.
I installed Justify as the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Santa Anita Derby. There evidently were those surprised that I did so inasmuch as he had run in only two previous races. Even Baffert questioned what I had done.
“I can’t believe Jon White made him the favorite. He’s letting his emotions get to him,” Baffert said on the Lousville radio program Inside Churchill Downs.
In the Los Angeles Times, Baffert was quoted by John Cherwa as saying about the Santa Anita Derby morning line: “I don’t see making my horse 4-5. He’s only had two races.”
As it turned out, Justify was bet down to 4-5 favoritism in the Santa Anita Derby, with Bolt d’Oro the second choice at even money.
Justify led from start to finish. He ran each quarter in :23 4/5, :23 4/5, :24 3/5 and :24 2/5 before a final eighth in :12 3/5 for a final 1 1/8-mile time of 1:49 3/5 (1:49.72). The final time would have been faster if not for what Baffert and others described as a very deep and tiring surface, a view supported by Justify being assigned a 107 Beyer, a figure positively impacted by the slower-than-usual surface as quantified by the track variant. Justify’s 107 was the highest Beyer Speed Figure by a 3-year-old around two turns during the first half of 2018.
I wrote this after the Santa Anita Derby: “Bolt d’Oro took not one, but two runs at Justify in the final three furlongs. For Justify, in just his third lifetime start, to turn back two serious challenges by the more seasoned, more battle-tested and classy Bolt d’Oro is further proof that Justify is super special.”
Justify won by three lengths. Bolt d’Oro had to settle for second. Core Beliefs finished third, 6 1/2 lengths behind Bolt d’Oro.
Two days after the Santa Anita Derby on Steve Byk’s radio show At the Races, Baffert said that Justify “won that on just sheer, raw talent. He’s just a phenomenal talent. This horse just has so many gears.”
I wrote this following the Santa Anita Derby: “You know what’s really scary? Baffert and Smith both have expressed the view that Justify is still learning and that there is room for further improvement. This is very bad news for those who will be trying to beat the grand-looking Kentucky-bred Scat Daddy colt on May 5 in the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles.”
As it turned out, they not only were unable to beat Justify in the Kentucky Derby, they also couldn’t beat him in the Preakness and Belmont.
4. GUN RUNNER in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Jan. 27. (Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm; trained by Steve Asmussen; ridden by Florent Geroux.)
In Gun Runner’s final 2017 start, he won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic by 2 1/4 lengths at Del Mar on Nov. 4. I ranked it as the top performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2017. Gun Runner was voted 2017 Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year and champion older male.
Gun Runner would race one more time before being retired to stud.
Despite breaking from post 10, which is dreadful in a 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream Park, Gun Runner won the world’s richest race, the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational, in convincing fashion as an even-money favorite.
Gun Runner was a pace factor from the outset. Despite the middle part of the race being demanding in that the second quarter was run in :23.20 and the third quarter in :23.60, Gun Runner bounded home strongly to win by 2 1/2 lengths in an excellent 1:47.41. Finishing second was West Coast, while Gunnevera ended up third in the field of 12.
West Coast in 2017 won the Grade I Travers Stakes and Grade I Pennsylvania Derby before finishing third in the Grade I BC Classic. West Coast was voted a 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
When Gun Runner won last year’s BC Classic, he was assigned a career-best 117 Beyer Speed Figure. He recorded an even higher Beyer in the Pegasus, a 120. Gun Runner’s 120 is the biggest Beyer Speed Figure posted during the first half of 2018.
“I’m so impressed for him to come through like he did today, to overcome the draw,” Asmussen said after Gun Runner’s Pegasus victory. “I’m just so proud of the horse. What a special horse. It’s the cherry on the top, this one.”
3. JUSTIFY in Pimlico’s Grade I Preakness Stakes at 1 3/16 miles on a sloppy main track May 19. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
When American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown in 2015, the race he came the closest to losing of the three was the Kentucky Derby, which he won by one length. He then won the Preakness by seven lengths and Belmont by 5 1/2 lengths.
When Justify swept the Triple Crown in 2018, the race he came closest to losing of the three was the Preakness, which he won by a half-length. But Justify’s performance was a whole lot better than his margin of victory suggests. He never got a breather at any point during the entire 1 3/16 miles. Few horses can win any race, let alone a Triple Crown race, without ever getting a breather.
Good Magic and jockey Jose Ortiz took it to Justify right away. The next day on Mike Willman’s radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles, Smith talked about how the Preakness early on turned into a match race between Justify and Good Magic.
“After we went underneath the wire the first time, the race was on,” Smith said, adding that it pretty much was a match race “from all the way down the backside, around the [far] turn, until I finally put him away [in the final sixteenth].”
Smith went on to say that in the final sixteenth, after they had put away Good Magic, he was trying to ask Justify as little as possible while still winning the race.
“I peeked under my shoulder and didn’t see anybody,” Smith said. “I just wanted to get him home safe and sound. I didn’t want to get after him or make him do any more than he had to do. And maybe I was trying to save him a little too much. I made it a little closer than I liked to. But the good ones find a way to get it done. It takes a whole lot to do what he did. That was his fifth race. That’s pretty incredible.
“If I had kept my foot on the gas, he would have won by farther. I had Good Magic beaten. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anyone to come flying the way the [D. Wayne] Lukas horse [Bravazo] did. [Bravazo] ran a tremendous race.”
This year’s Preakness will be remembered for being run in a rather eerie London-like fog. As for the condition of the track, Smith said it was “very slippery, very slick.” Smith said Justify was “slipping a lot” while having to “fight with Good Magic” for most of the race. Smith also said that more than once, Justify jumped tracks that were on the wet surface.
“They pull a ramp over [the track] so the people can walk back and forth [into the infield] and that leaves these tracks,” Smith said. “And man, he jumped the tracks crossing under the wire the first time.”
A wonderful photo tweeted by Barbara Livingston shows Justify from a head-on angle with all four of his legs off the ground as he was jumping the tracks coming through the stretch the first time.
Smith said Justify also “jumped some tracks on the backside.”
It was evident that the inside paths were the worst part of the track all day at Pimlico. That’s because the way the jockeys were riding in every main-track race on the card, it was as if an invisible rail existed a few paths out from the actual rail.
Good Magic and Ortiz were several paths away from the inside rail on the backstretch while racing to the inside of Justify and Smith.
“He kept floating me out, floating me out, floating me out,” Smith said of Ortiz.
Rather than hold his ground, Smith said he allowed himself to be continually floated out because he “was trying not to get into any kind of a bumping match” and that he “was trying to stay clear and clean.”
While many were disappointed that Justify did not win by more than he did, Smith was impressed that the colt was able to prevail when tested more than he ever had been before.
“This is a horse who was in a dogfight for a good seven-eighths of a mile and still held off the competition,” Smith said. “We should be commending him and not looking at him winning by only half a length. He showed more to me than drawing off and winning by 10. That was very impressive for him to get into a dogfight and prevail. We’ve seen him draw off and win so many times that you didn’t know what would happen when someone looked him in the eye.”
2. JUSTIFY in Belmont Park’s Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on dirt June 9. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Seizing command at once, Justify led past every pole and prevailed by 1 3/4 lengths.
Justify demonstrated yet again that he pretty much will do whatever his rider wants him to do during a race. When the rider steps on the gas pedal, Justify accelerates. He does not get headstrong or rank. He does it willingly. When the rider asks him to go, the colt increases his speed with the smooth finesse of an Olympic ice skater. Conversely, when the rider eases up on the gas pedal, Justify decelerates. When asked to slow down, the colt does not exhibit the resentment that one sometimes will see from a fast runner who does not have any interest in being rated. Again, he does it willingly.
There really can be no better cooperation between a horse and rider than what existed between Justify and Mike Smith in the Belmont Stakes. Smith felt it necessary to utilize Justify’s speed away from the gate. Consequently, Justify stepped the first quarter in :23.37, which was pretty quick so early in a 1 1/2-mile race.
But after that initial quarter, when Smith decided it would be prudent to ease off the gas pedal, Justify was perfectly amenable. The big colt got into a nice, comfortable rhythm while clicking off a second quarter in :24.74 and third quarter in :25.10.
Smith then asked Justify to pick up the pace, which the 4-5 favorite readily did by going his fourth quarter in :24.88 and fifth quarter in :24.81. Justify ran the first 1 1/4 miles of the Belmont in 2:02.90. That put him two lengths in front at the quarter pole.
With a furlong to go, Justify still led by two lengths. After Gronkowski’s tardy start, he trailed early, 14 lengths off Justify’s pace. Gronkowski rallied strongly to reach second and loom a threat at the eighth pole.
Justify was able to hold Gronkowski at bay throughout the final furlong. Justify ran his sixth and final quarter in :25.28. The final time was 2:28.18.
In the Belmont Stakes, Justify:
--Completed a sweep of this country’s Triple Crown, just the 13th horse to achieve this coveted feat and only the second horse to do it in the last 40 years.
--Became the first horse in history to sweep the Triple Crown without having raced as a 2-year-old.
--Broke the record for defeating the most opponents in the Belmont of any Triple Crown winner.
--Broke the record for defeating the most total starters in the three races of any Triple Crown winner.
These are the number of opponents each Triple Crown winner defeated in the Belmont Stakes:
9 Justify (2018)
7 American Pharoah (2015)
7 Seattle Slew (1977)
7 Citation (1948)
6 Assault (1946)
6 War Admiral (1937)
4 Affirmed (1978)
4 Secretariat (1973)
4 Omaha (1935)
3 Whirlaway (1941)
3 Gallant Fox (1930)
2 Count Fleet (1943)
2 Sir Barton (1919)
This is how many starters combined each Triple Crown defeated in the series:
35 Justify (2018)
32 War Admiral (1937)
31 American Pharoah (2015)
31 Assault (1946)
29 Seattle Slew (1977)
28 Omaha (1935)
27 Gallant Fox (1930)
24 Sir Barton (1919)
21 Secretariat (1973)
20 Affirmed (1978)
20 Whirlaway (1941)
15 Citation (1948)
14 Count Fleet (1943)
1. JUSTIFY in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles on a sloppy main track May 5. (Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith.)
Television commentator Randy Moss articulated just how outstanding Justify’s performance was by observing that no horse in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby had won it after running the first quarter as fast as he did.
Justify was breathing down Promises Fulfilled’s neck when that rival set a torrid early pace, with the opening quarter in :22.24 and half in :45.77. Those fractions certainly took a toll on Promises Fulfilled, who faltered badly. He finished 15th and lost by 39 3/4 lengths. Keep in mind Promises Fulfilled is not a bum. He was good enough to win Gulfstream Park’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths at 1 1/16 miles in early March.
But even though Justify ran so fast early in the Kentucky Derby, he still was able to flex his considerable muscles in the homestretch and maintained a clear lead throughout the final furlong. He won by 2 1/2 lengths in 2:04.20.
Good Magic finished second. He ran his heart out all the way down the stretch while trying to close the gap on Justify. Good Magic was the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 2017. Good Magic won Keeneland’s Grade II Blue Grass Stakes in early April and had trained sharply up to the Run for the Roses.
For Justify to stave off such a quality foe during the final furlong is another reason this was such a terrific performance.
Then there are the historical aspects to this win by Justify. With this triumph, he became a “curse buster.” He became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 since Apollo in 1882. On the front page of the May 12 issue of the BloodHorse magazine, it states that “Justify remains unbeaten, defies ‘Apollo curse’ in Kentucky Derby 144.”
After “Big Money” Mike Smith rode Justify in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the Hall of Fame rider was asked by Bill Finley which of the three victories was the most impressive.
“I think it was the Kentucky Derby because those were the fastest fractions and he actually set them along with the Dale Romans horse, Promises Fulfilled,” Smith said in a June 19 story written by Finley in the Thoroughbred Daily News. “There have been faster fractions, I believe, in the Derby, but none of those horses went on to win. He set those fractions and won.”