(The late, great Scat Daddy is the sire of Justify, Mendelssohn & Other Contenders / Photo Courtesy of Coolmore.com)

It may be hard to justify — especially considering that there were several key Stakes events held all over North America, and in Japan — but the biggest, most important, most electrifying, most impressive performance this week in the 2018 version of the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” may have come from a first time starter in a maiden race.

Really?

Don’t you know that the last time a horse won the Kentucky Derby that didn’t start a single race as a 2-year-old was Apollo?

My buddy, as resident breeding expert, Rob Murphy opined:

“Long Time Ago.”

He was right.

Don’t you know that was in 1882.

Murphy’s retort: “1982 was a long tim ago.”

He’s smart that way.

Don’t you know that you can’t justify that on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby?”

Well…

Then, again, it may be easy to justify why we have suddenly turned our collective attention, and, for that matter, hope, to a first-time starter breaking his maiden.

After all, Mourinho — one of the more heralded colts in the barn of Bob Baffert — flopped in his return to Arkansas and ran a disappointing fourth to a relatively-unknown grass expert in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

After all, Instilled Regard — who had dazzled with a standout performance at the Fair Grounds in the LeComte Stakes — returned to New Orleans and suddenly became Instilled Disregard. He was easily beaten by the tandem of Bravazo and a relatively-unknown grass horse of Snapper Sinclair.

After all, the El Camino Real Derby — which is borderline when it comes to Kentucky Derby preps, to begin with — was won for the first time in Stakes history by a filly. Paved, as talented as she obviously is, has been up to now a relatively-unknown grass horse.

So, where do we look for hope?

We turn to a 3-year-old colt by the name of Justify.

On Sunday, the son of Scat Daddy was bet down quickly and often to odds of .50-cents on the dollar. Fortunately, for those that bet on him, he ran like those odds were too high. Way to high.

In his first race — as in ever — Justify ran off to an easy 91/2-length victory over the 7-furlong distance at Santa Anita.

And, it didn’t take long before the metric gurus; the time experts; the game’s great handicappers and wannabe clockers began touting the next coming of the greatest racehorse of all-time.

Only time will tell if Justify will become all that. But, in this week, it was enough to kick off our list of Winners, Losers and In-Betweeners:

WINNERS:

  1. Justify:  This son of the late, great Scat Daddy was purchased by the China Horse Club and Maverick Racing as a yearling at the Keeneland September Sale in 2016. Consigned to the sale by Glenwood Farm, the colt brought a handsome $500,000. He must have been just as handsome. Now, in the barn of Bob Baffert, the colt is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing. And, they may be sitting on something very special, along with rider Drayden Van Dyke. In the debut performance, the colt left little doubt or much for suspense. As soon as the gate opened, he opened up. First, by a head. Then by a half-length. Suddenly, at the top of the stretch, he was gone by 5. At the wire of the 7-furlong event, he was ahead by nearly 10 and pulling farther away. And, the times were even more impressive: 21.80 for the first quarter; :44.37 at the half; 1:09.07 for 6 furlongs. Final time of 1:21.86. The buzz had begun. And, with good reason. One, there is the pedigree. In addition to being by the versatile and accomplished Scat Daddy, Justify is out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic. She was Graded Stakes Placed in the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park, when she ran 6 lengths behind the great Champion Groupie Doll. The second dam is Magical Illusion, who was Graded Stakes Placed, as well, having run third in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks to the Champion Ashado. And, the third dam is Voodoo Lily, a Graded Stakes Winner of the Grade 3 Columbia Stakes at Laurel Park. There is staying power in the pedigree, and this one surely looks and acts the part. Kentucky Derby winner? It would be historic. But history is meant to be broken. Eventually. Even after 136 years, right?
  2. Sporting Chance: Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a Grade 2 winner on Saturday in Bravazo, who captured the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds by the slimmest of nostril hairs. But it was the colt he left at home, at his home base at Oaklawn Park, that may have impressed the most. On Monday, Sporting Chance — a son of the great Tiznow — ran a game, trying, gutty third in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, running behind the rail-skimming My Boy Jack and the lugging-in Combatant. The fact is that Sporting Chance was compromised by the second place finisher and should have been moved up by disqualification. He was also wedged by the tiring Mourinho, who was drifting out, as well. But despite all the traffic issues, Sporting Chance soldiered on, and a few 100 yards past the finish line was easily the most impressive on the gallop-out. Monday’s performance was his first appearance in the afternoon since his scatter-brained win in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga last September. Nearing the wire, and safely in front, the colt veered sharply when contacted by the left handed whip of rider Luis Saez. He nearly dumped the rider that day, and left the win to the fast closing Free Drop Billy. The run on Monday was impressive, but even more so considering it was his first start in over 51/2 months. Now, he is worth watching.
  3. Bravazo: After running a disappointing 10th in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs to finish up his 2017 season, Bravazo wasn’t real high on a lot of lists charting possible contenders for the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Oh, he had run a really good second to Free Drop Billy in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, and he had run a tiring third to the talented Gotta Go in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill. But…??? The thoughts of that 10th place run in the last race lingered, as did the doubts. But 2018 has gotten off to a rocking start for this son of Awesome Again, who is also trained by Lukas. On Jan. 13, Bravazo — with Hall of Famer Gary Stevens in the irons — Bravazo showed more patience and more stamina as he roared from off the pace to squeeze out a neck victory in a 1-mile allowance race at Oaklawn. Still, the doubts lingered so much that Stevens stayed behind to ride in another allowance race at Oaklawn Park on Saturday than travel over to New Orleans to ride Bravazo in the G2 Risen Star Stakes. Dismissed at odds of 21-to-1, new rider Miguel Mena put the colt into the race early and he stayed right there until the end when he inched his nose in front of former grass runner Snapper Sinclair to win the 11/16-mile Stakes. A solid field was left in their wake, though. And, the questions are starting to subside and be replaced, instead, by optimism. Still, Ezmosh — with Stevens aboard on Monday — finished 10th and last in the G3 Southwest Stakes. And, do most consider Snapper Sinclair a Derby contender? The next start is sure to be the Louisiana Derby. More questions may be answered there. But Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four previous times — with Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999. He has started 48 horses in the Derby, which is tied for the most of anybody in its’ storied history. And, it hasn’t been 136 years since his last Kentucky Derby win, either. Although it may seem like it.

In-Betweeners:

  1. Snapper Sinclair: This son of the very versatile sire City Zip was considered a grass horse for much of his young life. After breaking his maiden at Saratoga, he won the Fasig-Tipton Turf Showcase Juvenile at Kentucky Downs, up and over the rogue-like hills and valleys. But after running 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf — and behind Sam F. Davis winner Flameaway (8th), Southwest Stakes winner My Boy Jack (7th), Remsen Stakes winner and Davis runner-up Catholic Boy (4th) — he was switched to the dirt, like all those others. And, since the surface switch, it was like a light switch. he ran a fast-closing third to Instilled Regard in the G3 LeComte Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 13, and returned to barely miss out in the G2 Risen Star. Now, he may be considered one of the favorites for the Louisiana Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen. Stay tuned. The best may be yet to come.
  2. Mendelssohn: I have no idea if trainer Aidan O’Brien and the ownership team of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derick Smith have any designs on trying this son of Scat Daddy on the dirt or have any thoughts of a possible run toward the Kentucky Derby, but considering the fact that this guy was so impressive in beating the others in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar last November, and that Scat Daddy’s Justified is now launching a serious bid in the “chase,” it might not be a bad idea to give it some thought. In this year’s crop, he may be able to make the transition all the way to the front of the class. Enticed? Oh, that’s another Derby contender. Sorry.

Losers:

  1. Mourinho: In the Smarty Jones Stakes, held at Oaklawn Park on Jan. 15, this son of Super Saver looked like the might follow in his father’s hoof prints — all the way to the Derby, and down the Churchill Downs stretch. On Monday, he looked like another sprinter-type that doesn’t like pressure, or longer distances. Which one is the real one? I’m afraid it is the latter. He had no muster for the late luster  in the Southwest.
  2. Instilled Regard: In his first five career starts, this son of Arch finished no worse than third. On Saturday, he ran fourth nearly the entire trip of the 11/16-miles — with only a brief appearance in the third slot. Uninspired and disengaged, he finished only about 2 lengths behind the first three. But a true Derby contender should have dominated this field of contenders (yet to be determined), and mostly pretenders. The most alarming thing was the comment of Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano, after the race. He said he didn’t feel like he had the “same horse.” Not good.
  3. Principe Guilherme: He was once thought to be a super star in the making, having run off to two impressive, open-lengths victories in his first two starts. Since then, he has caught reality and humility right in the bit. He was a non-threatening second to Instilled Regard in the LeComte and then was nowhere to be found (7th & beaten over 10 lengths) at odds of under 3-1 in the Risen Star. Drawing Board meet pupil.