Going into Saturday’s 144th Kentucky Derby (G1), the year 1882 featured prominently in the discussion as the last time that an unraced two-year-old, Apollo, had gone on to win the Derby. Now that Justify has put the “Curse of Apollo” to rest, I’m hoping that another year will be cited – 1935.
That year remains unique in racing history for witnessing Triple Crowns on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1935, Omaha emulated sire Gallant Fox by capturing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and the all-time great Bahram swept the English Triple Crown consisting of the 2000 Guineas, Derby at Epsom, and St Leger.
Never before, or since, have those two crowns coincided. The English treble has become an endangered species in the wake of Bahram, with Nijinsky II (1970) managing to accomplish it but only one other even trying it. The American version, although enduring a 37-year drought until American Pharoah came along in 2015, was at least frequently attempted.
After Justify’s powerful display at Churchill Downs, it’s plausible that he can follow in the hoofsteps of American Pharoah. He would thereby put Bob Baffert alongside Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (trainer of Gallant Fox and Omaha) and Ben Jones (of Whirlaway and Citation, the latter with son Jimmy) as the trainer of two Triple Crown winners.
Across the pond at Newmarket on Saturday, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Saxon Warrior turned in a powerful display of his own in the 2000 Guineas. Whispers of an English Triple Crown, already inspired over the winter just by the type of horse he is, were now stated forthrightly out in the open.
Could it be 1935 all over again?
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, there’s a reminder that we were in this position only six years ago – in fact, we were further along with dual classic winners apparently in pole position for a Triple Crown sweep. I’ll Have Another held a strong hand ahead of the 2012 Belmont, having stayed on relentlessly to nab Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Similarly, O’Brien’s Camelot had scraped home in the Guineas and bolted up at Epsom. Stamina didn’t figure to be an overriding concern for the son of Montjeu trying the about 1 3/4-mile St Leger, where he was the first since Nijinsky II even to go for the crown.
Then the travails of racing undercut both bids for history. I’ll Have Another was a shock withdrawal, retired on Belmont Eve with a tendon injury. Camelot made it to the St Leger, only to endure a checkered passage in the stretch. Godolphin’s Encke beat him to the punch and kept on too stoutly to be caught. Camelot reduced the deficit, but ran out of time, and three-quarters of a length separated him from immortality.
Still, with those pitfalls very much in mind, we may stand a better chance of a “double” Triple Crown this year than we did then. Justify and Saxon Warrior can argue they’re more naturally gifted than the corresponding hopes from 2012.
I’ll Have Another was a worthy Derby/Preakness champion, but no more compelling than the substantial list of others in the post-Affirmed era who could not complete the sweep.
Undefeated Justify, on the other hand, gives the vibe of one out of the ordinary. Sure, the Derby’s final time of 2:04.20 militates against that, but only if you ignore how the race unfolded in those conditions. They were all feeling the effects of that unsustainable pace, and Justify was slowing as well. Yet the fact remains that he stood up to the punishing tempo, still had enough to hurl back a champion in Good Magic, and held sway with authority. Very few horses could have won Derby 144 in quite the way Justify did. I doubt that anyone else in this crop, at this point, could have.
Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t the usual hard-luck stories for some Derby rivals. Mendelssohn has the right to feel most aggrieved since he never got a reasonable chance after a problematic start. Although the O’Brien trainee broke fairly, he wasn’t as quick into stride as Justify, and then the bludgeoning began. Magnum Moon veered over to crush Instilled Regard and Mendelssohn in turn. Once he was behind and playing bumper cars, Mendelssohn was never comfortable. And once he could not find his rhythm or use his early foot effectively, the race was over. Ryan Moore wisely took care of him the rest of the way.
Still, if Mendelssohn had a clean shot from the gate and Moore parked him where he wanted, I’m not convinced that he could have gone (or chased) that early pace and hung with Justify, let alone outfinish him. In any event, the point is moot because Mendelssohn is no longer a threat to Justify’s Triple Crown bid. He’s heading home to Ballydoyle to regroup. The best news of all is that O’Brien is plotting a return to Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), and a relatively smaller field (maximum of 14) suggests a fairer shot.
If Justify is regarded as the best on merit, he’s cleared the basic threshold for Triple Crown discussion. There’s not an obvious rival waiting in the wings to set the record straight. The pressing question now, aside from the constant possibility of injury or illness, is the grind itself. Given what he’s achieved in such a compressed time frame, at what point does it start to catch up with him?
Wheeling back in two weeks for the Preakness has been no problem for Baffert’s previous four Derby heroes, with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and obviously American Pharoah all confirming the Derby form a fortnight later at Pimlico. But they were more experienced, not on the same meteoric rise as Justify. His Derby may have taken more out of him than we can tell. If he gets through the Preakness, he would face a searching 1 1/2-mile test in the Belmont – his sixth race in fewer than four months.
On the plus side, Justify has the imposing physique of a beast. He’s anything but a light-bodied sort who gets knocked out easily by the rigors of it all. Barring injury, his constitution may allow him to maintain his form for the duration, and that’s enough to envision a potential Triple Crown sweep.
The case for Saxon Warrior being better than Camelot is more tenuous than the Justify/I’ll Have Another comparison. Both captured the Racing Post Trophy (G1) in their juvenile finales and remained unbeaten through the Guineas. But their respective Guineas performances can be read as a favorable sign for Saxon Warrior.
Camelot caught a rain-affected Rowley Mile that turned the Guineas into more of a stamina test than a showcase of miler speed. Moreover, it was a less than vintage edition in general with his best rival, stablemate Power, showing nothing but rebounding next time in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1).
Saxon Warrior, in contrast, had to outkick them on good ground in a solid time of 1:36.55. While 50-1 longshot Tip Two Win finished second, other smart types were in pursuit including Craven (G3) romper Masar; Elarqam, the hitherto unbeaten son of Frankel and Attraction; Racing Post Trophy runner-up Roaring Lion; and Saxon Warrior’s stablemate Gustav Klimt, himself the antepost favorite for a brief period. Only time will judge the caliber of the opposition, but I’d have to think this bunch will turn out pretty decent, probably better on the whole than Camelot’s victims in 2012.
As a son of Japanese legend Deep Impact, Saxon Warrior is bred for distances longer than a mile. That’s why it was so clutch for him to score in the Guineas, over an inadequate trip, while not totally cranked off the layoff. He’ll come on a bundle for Epsom, where he looms as a prohibitive antepost favorite (trading odds-on or even-money at this writing). Although someone can emerge from the upcoming Derby trials, it will take a pretty serious customer to challenge Saxon Warrior, and to deprive him of a classic double.
If Saxon Warrior sails home at Epsom, it stands to reason that the “lads” (the Coolmore partners) would want to take a crack at the St Leger. They won’t miss a chance to match the exploits of Nijinsky II.
“No question, I would think,” Michael Tabor told Racing Post Saturday. “Why not? It most definitely motivates me. I haven’t discussed it with John (Magnier), Derrick (Smith) or Aidan, but to me, yes.”
O’Brien, back at Newmarket Sunday, echoed the thought.
Saxon Warrior has shown enough acceleration at a mile to give at least some pause about his stamina over the Leger trip. But if he arrives on Town Moor ready to roll, his class can see him through. Just ask Nijinsky II.
Needless to say, for this dream to become reality, everything has to go perfectly for both horses over the long haul. Nothing can be taken for granted. If too much can transpire even in the short time frame between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Doncaster in September feels like an eternity from now.
But when we have unusually talented classic winners like Justify and Saxon Warrior around, let us dream as long as we can.
Justify photo courtesy of Churchill Downs/Coady Photography