Already firmly established as an astute athlete when the chips are down, and one of the best positional riders of his generation, along with Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron, and their ilk, Mike Smith enhanced that reputation Saturday as captain of the good ship Justify.

The 53-year-old Hall of Fame jockey guided the unbeaten Santa Anita Derby winner to a 2 ½ length victory in the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of the Triple Crown which now appears to be Justify’s for the taking, turning the Apollo Curse into Apollo Creed.

“One thing that separates Mike Smith from other riders is his connection with the horse,” said trainer John Shirreffs, who gave Smith a leg up for his only other Kentucky Derby triumph, aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005.

“When Mike gets on a horse, he somehow seems to connect with it,” Shirreffs said. “He puts his hands on it and establishes a rapport. Many riders do things very well, technically, but in addition to that, I think Mike also establishes an emotional contact with the horse.”

The majority of horsemen at Santa Anita fancied Justify in the Run for the Roses, and their opinions were only re-enforced after his victory as the favorite at odds of nearly 3-1, giving trainer Bob Baffert his fifth score in the world’s most famous race.

“Justify is genuine and powerful,” said Leandro Mora, 17-year assistant to Doug O’Neill, who had near-misses in the Triple Crown with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016. “Yesterday, 15 out of 20 horses tried to take the lead, and when that happens, it puts a lot of pressure on one horse that has to take the lead and be in the clear, as Justify had to do.

“He looks like a Triple Crown winner, although his breeding suggests he might not be a mile and a half horse (being a son of the late Scat Daddy), but once you see the horse, how he runs and how he looks, you have to go for him.”

Alan Sherman, who rode shotgun for his father, Art, trainer of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, concurs.

Like the aforementioned O’Neill three-year-olds, in 2014 California Chrome won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but dead-heated for fourth in the Belmont Stakes.

“After watching Justify yesterday, he’s got a legitimate shot at winning the Triple Crown,” Alan said. “I don’t see anybody that’s going to beat him right now. Winning it is hard to do, but Baffert’s done it before (in 2015 with American Pharoah, the first in Triple Crown winner in 37 years), so he knows how to do it.

“Justify should have plenty left in the tank, but coming back in two weeks is hard, although it should be a short field for the Preakness.

“I know a lot of people don’t want to run against him, and I don’t blame them.”

Meanwhile, Team Hollendorfer, while disappointed with not winning, was relatively happy with Instilled Regard, who assuredly outran his odds as the longest-priced horse of the 20 in the Derby, finishing a troubled fourth at 85-1 under Drayden Van Dyke after getting bumped and forced in at the start.

The son of Arch was beaten only 4 ¼ length by Justify, making up ground along the rail after encountering traffic with a quarter mile to run.

“We’re very proud of him,” said Jerry Hollendorfer assistant Dan Ward at Santa Anita Sunday morning, where he supervised workouts for champion Unique Bella (five furlongs in 1:01.20 under Freddie Rodriguez for the Grade I Beholder Mile on June 2) and San Vicente winner Kanthaka (six furlongs in 1:14.60 under Edgar Rodriguez for Saturday’s Grade III Laz Barrera Stakes at seven furlongs).

One final Kentucky Derby thought: bettors who dismissed playing Justify at a $7.80 win payoff will never get that price on him again.


FINISH LINES: Interviewed on Mike Willman’s Thoroughbred Los Angeles radio show this morning, Mike Smith, when asked how good Justify is, said, “I’ve never been on a three-year-old as talented as this.” . . . Multiple Grade I winner City of Light worked four furlongs at Santa Anita Sunday in 47 flat for Michael McCarthy, who is considering several races for the son of Quality Road, among them the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 26. “I’m very happy, very pleased, considering it was his first work back (from winning the Oaklawn Handicap on April 14),” McCarthy said. Also working Sunday was Oaklawn Handicap runner-up Accelerate for John Sadler, who plans to go in the Gold Cup. Accelerate went four furlongs in 49.40, while streaking stakes winner Selcourt, bound for the Beholder, went five furlongs for Sadler in 1:01.60. In all, there were 196 recorded workouts Sunday, 22 on the training track . . . Probables for next Saturday’s $75,000 Angels Flight Stakes for three-year-old fillies at seven furlongs include Film Actress, First Dudette, Show It N Moe It and Uppercut. Show it N Moe It will be reunited with Rafael Bejarano, unbeaten in two rides on the California-bred daughter of Grace Upon Grace trained by Gary Sherlock . . . There is a single ticket Pick Six Jackpot carryover today of $251,026 . . . Santa Anita will be dark for live racing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week, resuming live racing on Thursday, May 10, at 12:30 p.m., but will be open for simulcast racing Wednesday, with free parking and free general admission. Admission gates open at 10 a.m.


(Current Through Saturday, May 5)
Jockey Mts 1st 2nd 3rd Win% ITM% Money Won
Flavien Prat 44 13 8 5 30% 59% $559,350
Geovanni Franco 67 10 8 8 15% 39% $366,743
Joseph Talamo 53 9 10 7 17% 49% $447,779
Asa Espinoza 44 8 6 4 18% 41% $227,306
Franklin Ceballos 62 8 5 3 13% 26% $213,908
Tiago Pereira 46 8 3 7 17% 39% $229,069
Tyler Baze 72 7 14 8 10% 40% $405,840
Stewart Elliott 51 7 7 4 14% 35% $361,170
Drayden Van Dyke 40 7 6 7 18% 50% $341,945
Mario Gutierrez 26 7 6 4 27% 65% $354,380
Martin Pedroza 32 5 5 5 16% 47% $161,160
Trainer Mts 1st 2nd 3rd Win% ITM% Money Won
Doug O’Neill 33 9 7 6 27% 67% $441,890
Philip D’Amato 33 8 6 8 24% 67% $403,119
Peter Miller 44 8 5 5 18% 41% $410,211
David Jacobson 23 7 3 3 30% 57% $155,150
Mike Puype 14 6 2 1 43% 64% $164,900
Vladimir Cerin 16 6 0 2 38% 50% $166,165
Steven Miyadi 23 5 5 2 22% 52% $130,820
John Sadler 35 4 10 6 11% 57% $232,326
Richard Baltas 33 4 7 3 12% 42% $234,986
Bob Baffert 11 4 2 0 36% 55% $249,690
Simon Callaghan 11 4 1 0 36% 45% $139,090
Genaro Vallejo 7 4 0 0 57% 57% $66,130