As we look ahead to the emerging three-year-old class of 2019, it’s also time to glance back at the events of the past year. There’s no doubt about which race was the best prep for the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1): the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1), also known as the launching pad for eventual Triple Crown hero Justify.

The Santa Anita Derby was the key performance for three reasons. First, Justify was in a precarious position entering that first weekend in April. Having only just begun his career with a maiden romp February 18, and a two-turn allowance experience March 11, the Bob Baffert pupil had not contested any Derby scoring races.

Justify would not get a chance at Churchill Downs unless he earned Derby points, and he needed them in a hurry. If he didn’t run well enough at Santa Anita, he would effectively run out of time to make the Derby. Only two scoring races were left, both out of town the following weekend.

Second, Justify needed to prove himself against a higher grade of opponent. So far he’d lorded it over lesser foes, but now he was locking horns with Bolt d’Oro, the most accomplished sophomore on the Southern California circuit. The winner of the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and FrontRunner (G1), and third as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Bolt d’Oro was coming off a titanic tussle in the San Felipe (G2) with Baffert’s then-top prospect, McKinzie. Bolt d’Oro was awarded the win via disqualification, but there was not much between them.

McKinzie was initially set for a rematch with Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, until he was sidelined by injury. That prompted Baffert to pitch Justify in at Santa Anita, instead of sending him to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby (G1).

Thus when Justify defeated Bolt d’Oro by three decisive lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, it marked a seismic shift in the rankings. Justify not only surpassed McKinzie as Baffert’s best hope; now he clinched the role of overall Derby favorite.

Aside from the all-important Derby points and class test, Justify’s Santa Anita Derby stood out for its lofty BRIS Speed rating. The Scat Daddy colt recorded a 114 – according to my colleague Ed DeRosa, the highest since the Derby points system was instituted (ahead of the 2013 Run for the Roses).

Justify’s relentless gallop at Santa Anita gave us a hint of how he’d carry that high cruising speed in the Derby, Preakness (G1), and ultimately the Belmont S. (G1).  

Photo by Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com