September 26, 2023

Justique flashes star quality in Desi Arnaz

Justique and jockey Victor Espinoza win the Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar (Photo © Benoit Photo)

If C R K Stable’s Justique had been overturned as the favorite again in Saturday’s $101,000 Desi Arnaz S. at Del Mar, you might say she’d have “some splainin’ to do.” But the John Shirreffs juvenile rekindled the excitement with a show-stopping, last-to-first performance reminiscent of her debut.

Indeed, Justique’s visually impressive win here on July 31 – summed up by the comment line “off slow, inhaled foes” – had fueled high expectations for a follow-up. From the first crop of Triple Crown star Justify, and a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Mo Town, she appeared bound straight for the top. But a fever cost her some training time, and the Del Mar Debutante (G1) would have come too soon.

The Oct. 8 Chandelier (G2) at Santa Anita afforded her more time to prepare, albeit with the trade-off of jumping straight up to 1 1/16 miles. The 6-5 favorite in her eagerly-anticipated stakes premiere, Justique was a non-threatening third. In hindsight, she simply wasn’t cranked enough to handle the increased distance in the Chandelier, and Shirreffs recently told Del Mar publicity that she came out “really tired.”

The seven-furlong Desi Arnaz gave Justique the opportunity to reboot in a scenario more like her maiden – going one turn back at Del Mar. The company was sharper here, but it did not matter. The 3-2 favorite continued her custom of starting slowly with Victor Espinoza, then reassured her backers by improving position, and circling onto the premises already in upper stretch.

Meanwhile, front-running Parody was reeling off fractions of :22.04 and :45.05, attended by Naughty Lottie. Blessed Touch, the 19-10 second choice who had shown warp speed in her maiden romp, stalked instead and played her hand turning for home.

Barely had Blessed Touch struck the front when Justique collared her at the eighth-pole. From there it was just a gallop under a firm hold, or else Justique likely would have padded her 2 1/4-length margin. Her final time of 1:23.41 wasn’t near the 1:20.66 recorded by four-year-old The Chosen Vron in the Cary Grant S. later on the card, but their ages, aptitudes, and career profiles provide the essential context.

Blessed Touch was all alone in second, 6 1/2 lengths clear of Naughty Lottie. Parody salvaged fourth by a neck from Huntingcoco, and far back were longshots Daddy Classy Dill and Smokem for You.

Now sporting a mark of 3-2-0-1, $132,000, Justique is poised to answer the two-turn question in the future. In fact, Espinoza forecasts improvement over added ground.

“I don’t try to encourage her away from the gate,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “I just let her do her thing. I just want her to be happy in her races. The idea is to just get her in her rhythm; to let her do it her way.

“At the half-mile (pole) she started to pick it up. When she wants to, she’s quick – very quick. I moved up next to those horses on the turn and in two or three jumps she’s in front. She’s something. And if she goes longer?  I think she’ll be better.”

Her pedigree reinforces the idea. The $725,000 Keeneland September yearling hails from the same Glennwood Farm connections responsible for sire Justify. Bred by John Gunther and daughter Tanya’s Eurowest Bloodstock, she is also out of a homebred in Grazie Mille. That Bernardini mare is responsible for the aforementioned Mo Town, who captured the 2016 Remsen (G2) and excelled on turf in the 2017 Hollywood Derby (G1).