Some horses just have “it,” that indefinable air of supremacy, from day one. Given what unbeaten Justify has accomplished on the track in the span of about seven weeks – going from unraced three-year-old to Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite – you won’t be surprised to learn he was one of those who stood out from babyhood.
Justify was bred by John D. Gunther, the proprietor of Glennwood Farm, who along with daughter Tanya has achieved remarkable success from a relatively small broodmare band. Most of the Gunther headliners have been on the Triple Crown trail, from champion two-year-old male Stevie Wonderboy (bred in partnership) and First Samurai, the respective top two in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1); 2011 Travers (G1) hero and Belmont S. (G1) runner-up Stay Thirsty (bred with son John Darren); 2015 Florida Derby (G1) winner Materiality and 2016 Preakness (G1) fourth Stradivari, both ill-fated not to achieve their full potential; and Mo Town (bred in partnership w/ Tanya’s Eurowest Bloodstock), the 2016 Remsen (G2) victor who missed the 2017 classics due to illness but roared back last fall to capture the Hollywood Derby (G1) on turf.
Gunther has excelled on the 2018 Derby trail, not only as the breeder of Justify, but of Wood Memorial (G2) winner Vino Rosso as well – quite a feat, especially for an operation of Glennwood’s scale. And the Gunthers have a highly-regarded classic prospect in England too, Without Parole, who romped in his debut for John Gosden. A son of unbeaten phenom Frankel, Without Parole is a half-brother to Gunther-bred Tamarkuz, a star of the 2015 Dubai Carnival and later victorious in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1).
Justify’s tale is interwoven with the story of Tamarkuz and Materiality, not by bloodline, but by the timing of his birth. Making his grand entrance on March 28, 2015, the chestnut colt was born on a banner day for Glennwood – the day that Tamarkuz captured the Godolphin Mile (G2) on the Dubai World Cup card, and Materiality clinched his Kentucky Derby berth at Gulfstream Park.
Tanya tweeted the happy announcement of the mare Stage Magic’s delivering her Scat Daddy colt:
“Hearing of action from Dubai to Miami, Scat Daddy x Stage Magic decided to arrive in KY #twasthenight #glennwood.”
The colt had an ebullient nature to match his exquisite sense of timing.
“He really was so full of life and cheekiness, he never seemed to get tired or tired of being playful,” Tanya recalled. “He could give you a side look that very plainly indicated he knew exactly what his rank was (#1) and if he sensed you didn't know it already he would rectify that lack of understanding in short order.”
As the foal became a yearling, his physique turned out to be as robust as his personality.
“By summer of his yearling year, he had grown up to be quite a tall, strong yearling and of course he knew it,” Tanya observed. “Looking back at our records he weighed in at 1,050 pounds on August 3, 2016 (about a month before the Keeneland September Yearling Sale).
“He had a lot of energy and he certainly had figured out we were 1/10th of his size (or thereabouts!) and kinda fun to play with so long as we were feeding him, turning him out (you know, things he was keen on).
“I can't recall a day during evening turnout during sales prep where he walked out to the paddock like it was no big deal. It could be hot, humid and sweaty and he would still be like, ‘C'mon already. LET'S DO THIS!’
“Naturally he couldn't wait to be let go at the gate once inside his paddock and he would unfailingly race as fast as he could away from the gate, usually racing alongside the fence with his buddy. Buck, kick, rear and do it all over again.”
The yet-unnamed colt was also very aware when he was the center of attention.
“Usually during sales prep I like to take the odd video during yearling turnout especially when a yearling looks and moves like he did,” Tanya said, “but I never did with Justify primarily for one reason. He knew when he was being watched and would ham it up for an audience. Every year, the closer we get to the yearling sale dates and the fitter the yearlings get, the more we worry about them doing something to hurt themselves.
“And so I would walk away like he wasn't the big, impressive, fast colt that he was. I mean he would still do his thing and play like it was his job, but any time I lingered I felt like he was putting on an extra show – ‘Look at me, see what I can do!’ - so I would feign nonchalance and go to get another horse to turn out!”
The striking chestnut certainly caught the attention of prospective buyers at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, where he commanded $500,000 from China Horse Club and Maverick Racing. He was named by his new connections, and tutored by Rodolphe Brisset, before gearing up to race for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
The signs of an exceptional individual were therefore in evidence early. But Tanya’s hopes were raised long before Justify was even born. In fact, he represents the second generation of well-judged breeding by the Gunthers.
So to appreciate his tale in full, we have to go back a little further, and dig into the pedigree weeds.
Justify’s dam, Stage Magic, was herself a homebred. Gunther had purchased her dam, Magical Illusion, for $425,000 as a broodmare prospect at the 2005 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale. Magical Illusion’s price reflected her appeal, a combination of racing ability and a fascinating pedigree pattern. Recently retired as the winner of three of six starts, the daughter of Pulpit finished third behind future Hall of Famer Ashado and Stellar Jayne in the 2004 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).
Magical Illusion offered an intriguing genetic palette, being inbred to the full brothers Honest Pleasure and For the Moment. Honest Pleasure, the 1975 champion two-year-old colt, was a game second to Bold Forbes as the favorite in the 1976 Kentucky Derby. For the Moment, also a multiple Grade 1 winner, was eighth in the 1977 Run for the Roses after arguing the early pace with Seattle Slew. (This kind of pedigree pattern is a foreshadowing of Justify’s own make-up.)
In her second season as a broodmare in 2006, Magical Illusion visited Ghostzapper. The brilliant Hall of Famer, then just entering stud, was an outcross himself (through five generations) and complemented the mare’s pedigree with just a couple of duplications further back.
The resulting foal was Stage Magic. Up for sale as a yearling at Keeneland September, the chestnut failed to reach her reserve price when bidding maxed out at $70,000. Gunther therefore kept her. Stage Magic won three of 12 starts and placed in four stakes in 2011, including a runner-up effort in the New Orleans Ladies at Fair Grounds and a third to two-time champion Groupie Doll in the Gardenia (G3).
As ever, Tanya was meticulous in formulating Stage Magic’s breeding plans. One element of her pedigree invited reinforcement, and Scat Daddy was an attractive answer. Their union would combine the strains of two influential full sisters – Yarn, who appears in Scat Daddy’s ancestry through his sire Johannesburg, and Preach, the dam of the aforementioned Pulpit in Stage Magic’s pedigree.
You can see the pattern in the five-cross pedigree (from Brisnet.com), where Yarn and Preach (blue underlining) appear in the fourth generation.
Inbreeding to siblings is a potent angle, particularly because of the doubling-up of the influential broodmare responsible for both. This duplication of a superior mare is called the “Rasmussen Factor” after Daily Racing Form pedigree maven Leon Rasmussen, who analyzed the phenomenon with Rommy Faversham.
“The idea of inbreeding full sisters Yarn and Preach was very compelling,” Tanya recalled, “and one of those matings that I felt just had to be done.”
Yarn and Preach are by Mr. Prospector, but their dam is the key according to the Rasmussen Factor. That dam, Narrate, is by Honest Pleasure (him again) and out of State, a mare by Nijinsky II and herself out of a full sister to Hall of Famer Round Table.
Nijinsky appears twice more in Justify’s pedigree, closer up via other descendants, something else to savor on the page.
“Justify is also inbred to one of the all-time great racehorses in history - Nijinsky - so I was pretty happy about that too,” Tanya added.
Nijinsky is the last horse to sweep the English Triple Crown. A rigorous test of the classic Thoroughbred, the English Triple Crown encompasses the 2000 Guineas (G1) down Newmarket’s straight Rowley Mile, the 1 1/2-mile Derby (G1) around an idiosyncratic Epsom Racecourse that puts a premium on balance and athleticism, and the demanding St Leger (G1) conducted over a little longer than 1 3/4 miles at Doncaster. Until Nijinsky came along in 1970, no horse had managed to win those three British classics since Bahram in 1935. It took another 42 years for a horse even to try for the sweep, Aidan O’Brien’s Camelot, the 2012 Guineas/Derby hero who was a troubled second in the St Leger.
Because the marriage of Scat Daddy and Stage Magic offered these desirable pedigree angles, Tanya was especially eager to see how the foal would turn out.
“Every year when I am working on the stallion selection for our mares, there will be one or two matings that stand out and I can't wait to see what the mating will produce - this was the one for that season. Sometimes I feel and often say that foaling season is like opening Christmas presents (assuming all goes well that is). After waiting on average 11 months and 7 days to ‘open the presents’ there is a great deal of anticipation and we were pretty excited to meet Justify when he was born!”
Now fans can share in the excitement by watching Justify run, against his opponents and against Derby history. Although he faces a significant historical hurdle – no unraced two-year-old has gone on to win the Derby since Apollo in 1882 – Justify has displayed freakish talent with the potential to overturn the record book.
And that’s what the breeding of these noble creatures is all about. It’s pursuing the dream that one day, the foals you imagined when painstakingly arranging their parents’ tryst, the little ones you’ve raised and nurtured, can reach the highest level of the sport.
Tanya summed it up best:
“It is a very rewarding feeling to have known both Magical Illusion (grandma of Justify) and his dam Stage Magic. Having a homebred that you've known since they were kids and watch them grow up into gutsy racehorses and then their babies grow up to do their moms proud...it brings such a feeling it is hard to describe.
“When they run with so much heart, run to win or at least never give up it is a mixture of awe and pride and feeling so fortunate for the experience.”
Justify photos courtesy of Glennwood Farm