Rick Hammerle has been racing secretary at Santa Anita for
15 years and was stakes coordinator at Monmouth Park for 12 years, and he
thought he had heard everything. That is until one day in mid-February of this
year. Hammerle had carded a seven-furlong maiden race for 3-year-olds, and Bob
Baffert walked into his office to make sure that the race was going to fill. It
Baffert had a first-time starter named Justify entered in
the race and impressed upon Hammerle the importance of that race going. Baffert
seems to have a horse in every maiden race, so why, Hammerle thought, was this
particular one so important? That's when Baffert dropped a bombshell on him.
"I got a horse in there that can win the Kentucky Derby." he
What? Hammerle was floored when he heard that. Baffert at
the time had three of the leading 3-year-olds in the country in McKinzie,
Mourinho, and Solomini, all major stakes horses, and he's telling Hammerle in
mid-February that he can win the Kentucky Derby with a horse who had never
"I have seen lot of good horses over the years, and I'd
never heard anything like that before," Hammerle said. "I was like, ‘Oh my God,
the enormity of that statement.' I had never even heard anyone say that about a
horse going into the Santa Anita Derby, never mind a first-time starter going
into a maiden race in February. It was unbelievable."
As usual, Baffert knew just how powerful of an explosive
device he was about to detonate, as Justify had jaws dropping with his 9
3/4-length romp in a blistering 1:21 4/5, earning a whopping 104 Beyer speed
figure. No 3-year-old had run that fast a number in a stakes race.
"After that race, remembering Bob's words, I knew he was
going to win the Derby," Hammerle said.
A text to Baffert a short while later asking him exactly what
we were dealing with, brought a typical concise three-word response, but one
that resonated throughout the Derby trail and the Derby Dozen: "Breathes
No more was needed to be said. Baffert had recently launched
two rockets, American Pharoah and Arrogate, into the superstar stratosphere, so
when he uses words like that to describe a young inexperienced horse who had
never even run in a stakes race and who didn't even make it to the races until
February 18, they can be deafening.
Two and a half months and an allowance romp and a Santa
Anita Derby victory later, Baffert's words to Hammerle amazingly became
reality, as Justify splashed through the Churchill Downs slop to defeat what
was regarded as one of the deepest and most talented Kentucky Derby fields of
all time. And he did it by becoming only the second horse in 103 years to win
the Run for the Roses with only three lifetime starts and the first horse since
1882 to win without having raced as a 2-year-old. With a wave of Baffert's
magic wand, Justify made the specter of Apollo that had been hanging over the
Kentucky Derby like an ominous shroud for 136 years disappear forever.
So where did this powerhouse of a racehorse with the overwhelming
physical presence come from? Three years earlier he was romping about the
fields of John D. Gunther's Glennwood Farm outside Versailles, Kentucky
alongside another colt, later to be named Vino Rosso. Gunther and his daughter
Tanya, who plans all the matings, couldn't believe it when Justify won the
Santa Anita Derby and Vino Rosso won the Wood Memorial an hour and a half
John, who is from Canada, goes to Kentucky six or seven
times a year and stays for a week to 10 days, leaving Tanya to "micromanage"
"Tanya knows when the water buckets are half empty," John
said. "She's been doing pedigrees by hand since she was 8 or 9 years old."
It was Tanya who convinced her father to breed their mare
Stage Magic to Scat Daddy, who was known more as a grass sire.
"Tanya fell in love with Scat Daddy, who was standing for
$35,000 at the time," John said. "No one knew much about him. She talked me
into breeding to him."
Justify came into the world on March 28, 2015, just hours
after the Gunthers had scored an amazing double when two horses they bred,
Tamarkuz and Materiality, captured the Godolphin Mile in Dubai and later in the
day the Florida Derby, respectively.
"Then along comes this colt while we were still trying to
get our heads around the odds of having two horses bred and raised at Glennwood
winning these prestigious races on opposite sides of the world on the same
day," Tanya said.
"John recalls, "Even as a foal Justify was awesome looking
and very intelligent. He and Vino Rosso were Tanya's favorites, and of the two
he was the more aggressive one."
Tanya added, "As a newborn foal, Justify was well made and
very strong and it didn't take long for him to develop the cheeky, energetic
nature that would be become his trademark throughout the time we had him at
Glennwood. He was clearly dominant and only more so as the months went by. He
developed into a big colt that filled your eye with his strength and power. He
looked more like a 2-year-old than a yearling through the summer months of
sales prep. He knew he was the ‘king' early on, making it readily apparent that
you wouldn't want to challenge him, and that he was simply humoring his
handlers by allowing them to think that we were in charge."
It hadn't taken Tanya long to realize that Stage Magic's
foal was something out of the ordinary. One day, she was taking him out to the
field, and the other weanlings were already out, which got him a bit perturbed.
He was so in a hurry to join them that Tanya was unable to keep up with him.
"I'm a pretty fast walker, and I was so impressed that this
colt outwalked me to the field," Tanya said. "He was just a weanling and was
not half-jogging to do it - just striding forward with a purpose and covering
so much ground. I cannot recall handling a weanling at his age doing this as
easily as he did, and it left an indelible impression on my mind. Needless to
say, when he got bigger and stronger as a yearling he was the first to go out.
"As much as I became attached to Vino Rosso when working
around the two colts as young horses, Justify always commanded your attention
from a young age. He was imposing and eye-catching and such an athletic
When it came time for the Keeneland September yearling sale,
Tanya did not want to sell Justify or Vino Rosso, feeling both colts were
special. So her father decided to make it a win-win situation. He also had
second thoughts about selling them and put high reserves on both colts. For
Justify, he put a hefty reserve of $499,000, figuring he would be happy if he
surpassed that figure and he would be happy if he didn't and he would be forced
to keep him.
Tanya was anxious to see how both colts handled the stress
of the sale. She remembers how Justify seemed to love the action. "He was
confident, not nervous or stressed; rather just intrigued, like he was soaking
it all up," she recalled. "I love to see that in a young horse because you hope
that this demeanor and attitude may bode well for how they will handle the big
race days you dream about them having down the road one day. With a little
luck, maybe even one Saturday in May."
Although the colt received a good number of visitors, four
or five veterinarians turned him down, according to John.
"He had a tiny OCD lesion," John said. "Coolmore loved him
and I was surprised they went off the horse because they stood Scat Daddy."
Despite the rejections, Tanya and her father watched the
bidding increase, getting closer and closer to their reserve. Would the colt
sell or would they bring him home? Now it was getting up around their reserve.
One more bid and he would have a new owner. And one more bid was all there was.
The hammer fell at $500,000, just $1,000 above their reserve. WinStar Farm and
China Horse Club now owned the colt. John went to WinStar's Elliott Walden and
offered to buy in to the colt for half-interest, but, according to John,
neither WinStar nor China Horse Club wanted to reduce their interests...at least
at that time.
As a 2-year-old, Justify was put in a holding pattern, being
sent to young trainer and former Bill Mott assistant Rodolphe Brisset at
"He was very good looking and very forward, and easy to be
around," Brisset recalled. "He was still immature, but always gave the feeling
of a good horse when he was galloping and breezing."
Tanya said, "I knew he was in training at Keeneland until he
was ready to ship out to Bob. I was curious how he was doing and what the plans
were, but we try to be respectful of the new connections and not pry too much
once they leave our hands."
Eventually he was sent to Baffert in an effort for WinStar to
gain a strong presence in California.
As Justify burst on the scene with his phenomenal victories
and appeared ready to join Vino Rosso on the Derby trail, it started to sink in
to Tanya and her father just what they had accomplished, having bred and raised
two Kentucky Derby horses.
Tanya began to feel what Baffert was feeling as she watched
Justify dominate his opponents with that massive stride and generate all that
"Justify moves in a way that leaves you lost for words," she
said following the colt's easy allowance romp. "It's like you need to hold your
breath, take a moment to digest it, and then rewind it and experience it
Then came April 7 with Justify and Vino Rosso running in the
Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, respectively, on both coasts. Tanya was in
France watching the races on her iPhone at one o'clock in the morning, while
John was watching with his buddies in The Derby Bar and Grill outside Vancouver.
That's where he goes to study the form and make a few bets.
Earlier in the day, Tanya's stomach was "in knots," as she
awaited both races. "When I watch any races with our horses or horses we bred,
‘safe trip, safe trip,' is what I'm saying under my breath or in my head the
whole time," she said. "My fingers are crossed that they both stay safe and
healthy. I can't wait to see them again."
Tanya couldn't believe it when both colts won and did it
impressively. Justify, making his stakes debut, had grown into a man, defeating
the talented and far more experienced Bolt d'Oro, already the winner of two
grade 1 stakes and a grade 2, by three lengths, earning a huge 107 Beyer speed
"When it became clear that he was going to win, I had my
hand covering my mouth in a ‘Wow! We actually did it,'" Tanya said. "It was so
emotional. These are our babies."
Now it was on to Kentucky for both colts and a chance for
Tanya and John to be reunited with them; to see how they had grown, something
they hadn't done since they were sold as yearlings.
"We stopped by Baffert's barn and saw him," John said. "He
was our best looking yearling. Then I see him at Churchill and he has turned
out to be the best looking horse I've ever seen -- big, strong, and well
balanced; a man among boys. I thought I would never breed one as good looking
as Stradivari and along comes Justify."
Tanya added, "Justify always showed himself to be a
powerhouse, so it was not a surprise whatsoever to see he was still a powerhouse.
Just like he did at the sale he was still loving the action. I'm not going to
say whether there were any tears."
She didn't have to say, knowing how she cried at the sale
when she had to say goodbye to both colts.
Several days before the Derby Tanya had a dream that Justify
won by three lengths. "Having been able to gain a closer relationship with Vino
due to his laid-back demeanor, I knew in my heart this meant something to have
this dream," she said."
The final inspiration came at Churchill Downs just before
post position draw. Someone asked John and Tanya which post they wanted for Justify. Without
hesitation Tanya said "No. 7."
"When Justify's name was called for the 7 hole, it was like
just knowing," Tanya said. "I envisioned that he would break well, or if he
didn't, he would make up ground quickly and be just off the pace. And that if
he didn't get to pulling too much his big and efficient stride and class would
get him home in front."
Finally, the big day arrived and John and Tanya watched the
race together. As it unfolded, John felt a wave of confidence hit him, having that
much faith in Justify.
"I strangely enough just felt he would win," John said.
"Once he came out of the gate sharply and went into the first turn, I was sure
of it, especially having Mike Smith aboard. Down the stretch I wasn't worried
about him getting beat. My heart was pounding pretty good, though. Once he won,
it didn't really sink in how significant it is to breed a Kentucky Derby
winner. When I thought about it the next morning I had to pinch myself; did
this really happen? It makes me feel especially good for Tanya and all the
Glennwood staff. Everyone is so happy."
Tanya ran the gamut of emotions - hope, confidence, and
unbridled joy -- as the race played out just as she had dreamed.
"When I saw the fast fractions, I should have been worried,
but he was doing it with that seemingly effortless unhurried big stride of his
and so I wasn't," she said. "I looked for Vino Rosso and couldn't find him in
the wet mess behind the frontrunners. Turning for home, I just knew and cheered
him on home, screaming with a portion of the WinStar team and my dad just
behind me. I was on a chair in heels just hoping not to fall off but not really
caring at the same time if I did, so long as I could see Justify crossing the
finish line in front.
"I think my first words were ‘Oh, my God!' as I again
covered my mouth with the amazement of it all. The WinStar crew corralled us
with them to the winner's circle. For sure I would have lost my way if not for
them, and what an amazing experience to be swept up in that crew. My dad and I
got separated and I kept looking around for him only to see he had somehow
taken a faster route to the winner's circle and was there with his best friend
Steve Irwin and Lindsay Wilson, one of our key people at Glennwood. There were
tears of joy and huge smiles from everyone, and my dad just had this look of
shock. He had bred a Kentucky Derby winner! I'm so proud of him, the horse, the
mare, the farm. But it was a humbling moment at the same time."
Beyond the thrill of winning the Kentucky Derby, Tanya said
she was in awe of Justify's performance. She kept asking herself how did a
horse do what he just did? To draw off the way he did, despite the blistering
"I have so much appreciation, awe, and respect for the horse
that he is, the heart that he showed, and the performance that he put on," she
said. "What a horse. And he came from my dad's mare, born at our farm, raised
The morning after the race, John and Tanya were back at
work, cleaning Barn 4 and spending time with Stage Magic, congratulating her.
Her son was now a bona fide superstar. And with her is her foal by Pioneerof the Nile, and out in those very same fields is her yearling colt by Will Take Charge, who, believe it or not, is even bigger than his half-brother was as a
As Tanya said, "A great deal of time and thought went into
Justify's mating. It didn't just happen by chance, so it is very gratifying to
see all those thoughts and dreams encapsulated in this horse. We are just so
proud of him, and of his mom and his late grandma."
As if winning the Kentucky Derby and having two starters in
the race isn't enough, the Gunthers also have two half-sisters to the dam of
Good Magic, runner-up in the Derby.
And what of Vino Rosso, who finished ninth? Trainer Todd
Pletcher said, "I don't think I've ever had a horse with as much dirt in eyes
as he did after that race. We're still flushing it out this morning."
As for Baffert, his words, which seemed so bold at the time,
can still be heard reverberating throughout the Santa Anita racing office - "I
got a horse in there that can win the Derby."
Two and a half months later, another text was sent to
Baffert congratulating him on his and Justify's extraordinary accomplishment,
and once again, the response was concise and just as profound:
"He was a beast from day one."
And since day one, all his opponents have learned what Tanya
learned that day leading him out to the field when he was a baby. When he wants
to go, no one can keep up with him. And as of now, no one can stop him. Not
As Tanya headed to the winner's circle, she was encouraged
by WinStar's Sean Tugel to remove her high heels so she could get across the
soggy turf more adeptly. So, there she was barefoot as she arrived in the
But it was the walk back that truly made a profound impact
"When I walked across that hallowed Churchill dirt surface,
the mud felt special under my feet," she said. "This was Kentucky Derby dirt. But
more important, on this day it was Justify's dirt."