“A Beast From Day One”

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 had to.

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 said.

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 raced?

"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 different air."

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 apart.

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" the farm.

"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 individual." 

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 Keeneland.

"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 power.

"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 again."

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 figure.

"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 early fractions.

"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 by Glennwood."

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 yearling.

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 even Apollo.

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 winner's circle.

But it was the walk back that truly made a profound impact on her.

"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."

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