LOUISVILLE (WAVE) - The morning after the 144th Kentucky Derby was warm and sunny – more about that in a moment – and at 8:06 a.m., trainer Bob Baffert walked out of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs holding the reins of a living flame.
That's how the gifted turf writer Joe Palmer once described Man o' War. "As close to a living flame as horses get," Palmer typed. It can only be guessed what the wordsmith might have said of Justify, the precocious colt who won't officially turn three years old until Wednesday.
"Here he is," said Baffert.
His copper coat shining in the sun like a new penny, Justify caused a murmur of something akin to awe ripple through the assorted crowd of writers, photographers, horsemen, and hangers on. He is huge, handsome, and perfectly put together. An equine cover boy, if there ever was one.
For a few minutes, Justify allowed himself to be photographed and adored. Then he began to get impatient, leading Baffert to turn the reins over to a hotwalker with a shrug and a smile, as if to say, "He's the boss and I'm not going to mess with him."
Then the white-maned trainer was mobbed by the good folks toting notepads and microphones. This was his fifth Derby victory in 21 years, putting him behind only Ben A. "Plain Ben" Jones on the all-time list.
Naturally, several of the questions directed at Baffert were about the horrid weather that sneaked up on Derby 144 like the proverbial thief in the night. At no point did any of the pre-Derby forecasts indicate that Saturday would be as miserable as it was.
Indeed, the day after the Derby was what Derby Day was supposed to be. Simply perfect, in other words. It was a cruel joke by Mother Nature, who so far has not been kind to Louisville in 2018.
The city has endured day after gloomy day of snow and rain or sometimes both. For several days, the Ohio River overflowed its banks much as it did in the historic flood of 1937. Spring didn't seem to really arrive until a week before the Derby.
But the good weather of Derby Week was just a tease. By some strange quirk, the chill and rain returned for the Derby. The sun didn't shine a second on our old Kentucky home, and the rain at the track never stopped for more than a couple of minutes.
"I admit the weather made me nervous," Baffert said.
He was hardly the Lone Ranger. The owners, trainers, and jockeys of the other 19 horses in the field all had to do a lot of recalibrating. So did the serious handicappers in the media. But the crowd never lost faith in Justify, who opened at 3-to-1 odds and went off at 5-to-2.
In becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old, Justify proved he might be any kind of horse. His looks bring to mind Secretariat, the Triple Crown hero of 1973. His record brings to mind Seattle Slew, who became the first horse to win the Triple Crown while still unbeaten in 1977.
Naturally, Baffert was asked to compare him with American Pharoah, the ultra-talented colt who turned the 2015 Triple Crown into his own personal tour de force. Until Pharoah, no 3-year-old had won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, a dry spell of 37 years.
Now it's a distinct possibility that racing could get its second Triple Crown winner in four years, both trained by Baffert, the one-time quarter-horse trainer who has dominated the sport's classic races since his Cavonnier was beaten by a nose by Grindstone in the 1996 Derby.
While not wanting to take a thing away from American Pharoah, Baffert has admitted that Justify is the best-looking horse he has ever trained. At times, even he can't seem to find the right words to describe the equine Picasso in his care.
The bad news for his potential foes in the Preakness on May 19 at rickety old Pimlico in Baltimore is that Justify looked a lot fresher than some of the bedraggled media types who didn't have the luxury of shelter in the hours leading up to the Derby.
There was a lot of grumbling and sharing of horror stories until Baffert led Justify out of the barn. Then the cameras began whirring and clicking, and you could hear muttered gasps of "Oh, my God."
A living flame will do that to you.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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