The circumstances at this year's Kentucky Derby left a lot of horse racing fans in doubt.
Justify looked like a tremendous horse and was the 3-1 favorite throughout the week entering the race on Saturday, per the Derby's website, but he had just three races under his belt, and all of them were in California.
He had won all of them, but winning at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, against 19 other competitors was a completely different story. Justify's three previous victories came against much smaller fields.
There was one other factor. Rain. Heavy rain. The most rain that had come down on any Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs.
NBC's analysts said that three inches of rain had come down throughout the day, and that was prior to the start of the race when it was pouring harder than it had been at any point in the day.
Any of those factors could have impacted Justify in 1 1/4-mile run.
None of them did.
The big, red horse was impressive with every step he took on the classic track. Trained and prepared to the hilt by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Justify came forward with a huge effort. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith knew just how to get his mount going, and the result was a smashing victory.
Justify won the race with a time of 2:04.20, and the key to the victory was the start. Justify got out of the gate quickly and was well positioned in second place slightly behind Promises Fulfilled and ahead of 18 other competitors. This meant that he did not have to engage in a physical battle with other horses, nor did he have to combat the mud from the racetrack flying back in his face.
He ran the first half-mile in 45.77 seconds, and that's what could have been a problem. That kind of blazing start to the race could have worn out a lesser horse, but once Justify got to the front, there was no stopping him.
Kentucky Derby Results List
Win ($1.24 million): Justify (2:04.20); Jockey: Mike Smith; Trainer: Bob Baffert
Place ($400,000): Good Magic (-2 ½ lengths); Jockey: Jose Ortiz; Trainer: Chad Brown
Show ($200,000): Audible (-2 ½ lengths); Jockey: Javier Castellano; Trainer: Todd Pletcher
4th ($100,000): Instilled Regard (-4 ¼ lengths); Jockey: Drayden Van Dyke; Trainer: Jerry Hollendorfer
5th ($60,000): My Boy Jack (-7 lengths); Jockey: Kent Desormeaux; Trainer: J. Keith Desormeaux
6th: Bravazo (-8 lengths); Jockey: Luis Contreras; Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas
7th: Hofburg (-8 ¾ lengths); Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.; Trainer: William Mott
8th: Lone Sailor (-9 ¼ lengths); Jockey: James Graham; Trainer: Thomas Amoss
9th: Vino Rosso (-10 ½ lengths); Jockey: John Velazquez; Trainer: Todd Pletcher
10th: Solomini (-11 lengths); Jockey: Flavien Prat; Trainer: Bob Baffert
11th: Firenze Fire (-23 ½ lengths); Jockey: Paco Lopez; Trainer: Jason Servis
12th: Bolt d'Oro (-24 ¼ lengths); Jockey: Victor Espinoza; Trainer: Mick Ruis
13th: Flameaway (-30 ½ lengths); Jockey: Jose Lezcano; Trainer: Mark Casse
14th: Enticed (-34 ¾ lengths); Jockey: Junior Alvarado; Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin
15th: Promises Fulfilled (-39 ¾ lengths); Jockey: Corey Lanerie; Trainer: Dale Romans
16th: Free Drop Billy (-41 lengths); Jockey: Robby Albarado; Trainer: Dale Romans
17th: Noble Indy (-42 ¼ lengths); Jockey: Florent Geroux; Trainer: Todd Pletcher
18th: Combatant (-42 ¾ lengths); Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.; Trainer: Steven Asmussen
19th: Magnum Moon (-49 ½ lengths); Jockey: Luis Saez; Trainer: Todd Pletcher
20th: Mendelssohn (-73 ¼ lengths); Jockey: Ryan Moore; Trainer: Aidan O'Brien
Good Magic, trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Jose Ortiz, ran a strong race and finished second, 2 1/2 lengths behind the winner. When the two horses were engaged in the stretch run, it appeared that Good Magic was making up ground and might be able to engage Justify and pass him, but the winner just steamrolled on ahead and put the runner-up away.
The fast half-mile at the start did not wear down Justify as he had plenty left down the stretch.
Smith knew that his horse had an excellent chance to win the race as soon as he was able to avoid trouble at the start.
"Amazing horse," Smith said, per ESPN.com. "He's got that 'it' factor. He is so above average, he's got unbelievable talent and he's got a mind to go with it. He was loving this stuff."
Justify is undefeated in four races in his career, and all four races came this year as a three-year-old. He did not go to the post at all as a two-year-old and became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without running as a juvenile since 1882. Apollo had won the Run for the Roses that year without running as a two-year-old, but no horse had been able to match that achievement.
While everything went according to plan for Justify, it did not for Mendelssohn, who finished 20th. The horse who won the UAE Derby in Dubai by 18 1/2 lengths and was highly thought of coming into the Derby got slammed badly at the start and ended up at the back of the pack. He was never able to recover.
The next step for Justify is the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Baffert has to make sure his horse is healthy, but if there are no problems, it seems certain that Justify will run in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore on May 19.
Justify appears to be a formidable runner in that 1 3/16-mile race who will have an excellent chance to remain undefeated and go 2-of-2 in the first two Triple Crown races.