Justify has electrified the American racing scene with a pair of scintillating wins this past month at Santa Anita. Only the sky appears to be the limit for the new star from the loaded barn of Bob Baffert. As good as he has looked, though, the odds are stacked against him if you are expecting nothing less than a Kentucky Derby victory for the son of Scat Daddy. History is more than clear on this. The last horse to win the Derby with just three starts was more than a century ago, when the filly Regret did it in 1915. The last Derby winner who did not race as a 2-year-old was Apollo way back in 1882. Much more recently, there was a horse who attempted to do both with a similar schedule as planned for Justify. Of course, we all remember Curlin.
On the third day of February eleven years ago, the strapping son of Smart Strike made his career debut for trainer, Helen Pitts. Sent off as the 2-1 favorite in the field of eight, Curlin demonstrated his exceptional talent right away. Powering home a winner by more than a dozen lengths, the handsome chestnut stopped the timer in 1:22 1/5 for 7 furlongs, despite drifting well out in the stretch. Social media was only in its infancy back in 2007, but still, the buzz that came out of Gulfstream Park that afternoon was sizable.
Much like Justify, Curlin would make his second career start in March, but unlike the new talked about colt, Curlin went right into graded stakes racing for start #2. Once again, and this time at Oaklawn Park, he would not disappoint.
It was an amazing performance for a colt with only one previous start, but as we know, Curlin did not slow down from there. Bought into by a partnership that included Stonestreet Stables, Padua Stables, and George Bolton before the Rebel, he was even better in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby. Sent off as an overwhelming favorite in a field of nine, the now Steve Asmussen-trained charge dismantled his competition to the tune of a 10 1/2-length romp in the million dollar Arkansas Derby. It was quite a statement on his way to Louisville.
On the first Saturday in May, Curlin arrived with a perfect 3 for 3 record. He already had two graded stakes victories, and had won his three starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths. He truly was one of the most exciting Derby contenders in years. In fact, he was hammered all the way down to be the 7-2 Derby future wager favorite after the final betting closed one day after his romp in the prestigious Arkansas Derby.
On Derby Day, some showed hesitancy in betting a horse who was bucking history in such a way. Curlin was well backed at 5-1, but favoritism fell to the two-year-old champion, Street Sense, who was coming off a narrow defeat in the Blue Grass Stakes. Sure enough, the bettors were correct, as Street Sense stormed up the rail to run by Hard Spun and win the Run for the Roses at odds of 9-2. Curlin didn’t run poorly, by an means, finishing third. During the early stages, he was steadied, in between horses, and further backed than wanted. He was able to make up good ground rallying wide, but at the wire, he was a full eight lengths back of the winner.
As he proved numerous times during his Hall of Fame career, Curlin was something special. Despite the relative rush to get him to the Kentucky Derby after such a late start, he came back two weeks later to defeat the Derby winner in the Preakness with a powerful late rush. It goes without saying that we have not seen many horses like the Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Dubai World Cup winner in the last quarter century.
Curlin remains the gold standard for what a horse with a February debut, and only three lifetime starts can do in the Kentucky Derby and beyond. It is a standard in which Justify hopes to chase in the next few months. History is not on his side, but like Curlin, the talent is there.
Photo of Curlin courtesy of the NYRA