by DICK POWELL
There were lots of stakes races run over the President’s Day weekend, but the two stars of the week came in an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs and a maiden special weight race at Santa Anita.
On January 13, Todd Pletcher unveiled MAGNUM MOON in a six-furlong dirt sprint at Gulfstream Park. Against a good field where he was only the second choice in the wagering, the son of Malibu Moon sat just off the pace before taking over on the turn. Without any real urging from Luis Saez, Magnum Moon opened up in the stretch with a last quarter in :24.53 to stop the teletimer in 1:10.03.
Magnum Moon earned a terrific BRIS speed rating of 99, and with his ability to finish, two turns was in his immediate future. In third was Machismo, who came back to win his next start at Gulfstream Park by over 11 lengths going 6 1/2 furlongs in very fast time while also earning a BRIS speed rating of 99.
Last Thursday, he showed up not at Gulfstream Park but at Tampa Bay Downs to run in a first-level allowance race for only $27,500.
The main reason was Pletcher’s confidence that the race would fill and go, so he didn’t care about the purse but get the timing of the race right. Going 1 mile and 40 yards, Luis Saez sat him in fourth, in behind horses with dirt in his face, before pulling out around the far turn and blowing by the leaders. Left in his wake was VOUCH who was a good third in the Remsen (G2) behind Catholic Boy and Avery Island.
Magnum Moon’s final time of 1:39.18 was only .11 seconds slower than the track record and it was achieved without the benefit of a fast pace. Being owned by Robert and Lowana Low, who like to race their horses at Oaklawn Park, the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) should be in his immediate future.
Out in California, Bob Baffert was joking around in December about getting starts into his unraced two-year-olds before the end of the year since no horse has won the Kentucky Derby (G1) since Apollo in 1882 without racing at two.
Then along came first-time-starter JUSTIFY, who raced in Sunday’s second race at Santa Anita; a seven-furlong maiden special weight dirt race for three-year-olds. Touted as the next big thing off a series of brilliant workouts, Justify was sent off as the 1-2 favorite in the field of five.
Breaking a bit tardy, Drayden Van Dyke sent him up to engage the leaders and even while racing between horses, he relaxed beautifully while going the first quarter mile in :21.80. Gradually asserting himself, Justify began to open up going into the far turn and he came to the top of the stretch in front and then the fun began.
Fast horses run fast so the :44.37 first half was good, but it was what he did in his next three furlongs that made me ask the question, “Am I watching Seattle Slew all over again?” Justify flew through six furlongs in 1:09.07 and finished the seven furlongs in 1:21.86 and earned a BRIS speed rating of 100.
Now, here is where it gets interesting. After the race, Bob Baffert said he had a plan to get him to the Derby and Triple Crown. With only 11 weeks to the first Saturday in May, Baffert saw enough in the morning and now, in the afternoon, to tempt fate and try to win the Derby after making his career debut on February 18.
Obviously, everything would have to go right for it to work and there is a big risk of asking him to do too much too soon. The normal path would be to take your time and have a monster for the Preakness (G1).
But Baffert, without hesitation, said that he is confident that Justify can do it. So what does that tell you?
It tells me that McKinzie, Solomini and Mourinho are second-stringers in the Baffert barn. Even though all three are legitimate Derby contenders, they pale in comparison to Justify.
In order to get Derby eligibility points, Baffert is going to have to be creative to separate Justify from the rest of his three-year-olds. Time is running out and with most trainers wanting at least four weeks rest going into the Derby, there is really only seven weeks. Depending upon how he comes out of the race, I can’t see Baffert getting two more races into him unless he goes to Arkansas for the Rebel/Arkansas Derby.
Where he would run into Magnum Moon!