(Reuters) - Despite being saddled with a century-old curse, Justify will head to the starting gate for the 144th Kentucky Derby on Saturday as the favourite to claim the first jewel in American thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.
Justify arrived at Churchill Downs with a thin but impressive resume and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert drawing comparison to his star pupil American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.
The lightly-raced colt has won all three of his career starts and tuned up for the Run for the Roses by romping to a three-length victory at the Santa Anita Derby.
Those sparkling results combined with a no less glittering entourage that includes Baffert, who has put four horses in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle and veteran jockey Mike Smith, in the irons when 50–1 longshot Giacomo came home first in 2005, have made Justify the early 3-1 favourite.
But for some bettors, who rely on hunches and superstitions as much as the form chart, the “Curse of Apollo” will be on their minds when they step up to the wagering windows where last year $209.2 million (155 million pounds) was bet on the Kentucky Derby, according to the website WalletHub.
Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year old.
With the Boston Red Sox having exorcised the 86-year-old “Curse of the Bambino” by winning the World Series in 2004 and the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 Fall Classic to end the 108- year “Curse of the Billy Goat”, the “Curse of Apollo” stands as one of American sport’s most enduring hexes.
While the Curse of Apollo may be a worry for some, on the other side of the coin favourites have won the last five Kentucky Derbys and seven of the last 11.
“There are so many other things that can go wrong I don’t even worry about that,” said Baffert, who will watch Justify break from the seventh post position.
“The Apollo curse is something I don’t even think about and it’s something that’ll be broken, whether it’s this year or another year.”
Although Baffert dismissed the curse, he will have an eye out for black cats which according to legend bring bad luck if they cross your path.
Baffert in part blames black cats for scuttling two Triple Crown bids, Real Quiet in 1998 and Point Given in 2001.
“I don’t want any of the competitors to go out and buy a black cat and throw him out there,” offered a half-joking Baffert.
Curses and black cats aside, the 144th Run for the Roses is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years with a quality 20-horse field contesting the 1 1/4-mile classic.
Leading the challenge to Justify is Mendelssohn, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner arriving in Louisville fresh off an eye-popping 18 1/2-length victory at the UAE Derby, the Aidan O’Brien trained colt installed as second favourite at 5-1.
Magnum Moon, another horse taking on the Curse of Apollo, was set as third favourite at 6-1 as trainer Todd Pletcher goes for rare back-to-back Kentucky Derby wins.
“It’s one of the toughest Derbys that I’ve ever seen and one of the best draws that I’ve ever seen,” Baffert said. “I’ve been there with the best horses that God made, and I know what it’s like.
“You can never take anything for granted, you just got to go day by day and get there and hope everything goes your way.”
Editing by Ed Osmond