His jockey Ryan Moore had long since given up. There was no longer any use in asking his mount to persevere. The whip had been tucked away, the hands had fallen quiet at the base of the neck. When Mendelssohn finally hit the finish line, he was dead last and practically walking. His margin of defeat: 73 lengths. (73 1/4, to be exact.)
These two outcomes -- Justify’s commanding victory and Mendelssohn’s embarrassing loss -- were decided in the very first few seconds of the race. Each horse’s fate was sealed right then and there.
For Justify, it was smooth sailing from the moment the gates flew open. He broke in stride, encountered no immediate traffic on either side of him and, with a tap, tap, tap of the whip on the right shoulder from jockey Mike Smith, was sent roaring down the center of the track at breakneck speed. He was out in the clear and never looked back. True, he tired badly late -- he ran the final half-mile in a snail-like 53 seconds -- but none of his 19 rivals was able to mount much of a rally over a surface that more resembled a marsh than a race track.
For Mendelssohn, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. When the gates opened, he bobbled awkwardly, if ever so briefly. Moore started to straighten the colt up when suddenly a rival to his outside slammed wildly into him, knocking him off stride and leaving him trapped behind a wall of horses. As the mud came flying back at Mendelssohn fast and furious, it was immediately clear he was uncomfortable.
Before long, Moore was forced to start riding him aggressively to try to keep pace with the leaders but it was no use. Mendelssohn began dropping like a stone through the field. After the race, jockey and rider were so thoroughly covered in mud, they were almost unrecognizable. Justify, and Smith, on the other hand, were rain-soaked but pristinely clean.
Had the starts been reversed -- had it been Mendelssohn that broke cleanly and Justify compromised by out-of-control rivals -- the outcome almost certainly would have been different. But racing luck is part of the game, and when Justify was handed a small dose of it, he flashed the brilliance required to take advantage.
The undefeated colt will face a very different scenario in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, in two weeks. There will be no field of 20 horses to navigate. Only a handful of lesser rivals are being lined up. The trainers of all his top challengers seem leery of taking him on again right now. He’ll be an enormous favorite -- I suspect in the 2-5 or even 1-5 range -- and should win handily if he runs anything close to his best race, putting him on the cusp of becoming the second Triple Crown winner for trainer Bob Baffert in four years.
Mendelssohn, meanwhile, is one of those being steered far away from the Derby winner. He’s heading back home, to the comfortable confines of Ballydoyle stable in County Tipperary, Ireland.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.