In 2010, he dumped the rider, ran the wrong way, hopped a fence and explored the backstretch barn area.
In 2011, he had to contend with Caleb’s Posse — twice — and lost twice.
In 2012, he made his late run, but the leader drifted out, so he did, too, and he was second by a lousy neck, getting the same good view of the Saratoga Race Course clubhouse with his right eye that he got with his left in 2010.
In 2013, it finally all came together for Justin Phillip.
The 5-year-old son of First Samurai won the A.G. Vanderbilt in a crisp 1:08.59 before 24,133 on Sunday to earn the first Grade I victory of his 29-race career, a testament to the resolve of a horse who has repeatedly run hard, at nine different tracks, against the best sprinters in the country.
Carrying the familiar turquoise silks with the gold “Z” of Zayat Stables, Justin Phillip had been 0-for-5 in Grade I’s, including a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November, and 0-for-4 at Saratoga in races ranging from a maiden to graded stakes.
He broke the Grade I barrier in typical fashion, closing into a speed duel between Delaunay and Gentlemen’s Bet to win by two lengths over the late-closing Bahamian Squall. In the process, he also passed $1 million in earnings.
“I can’t say enough about how much respect I have for Justin Phillip as a racehorse,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “He hasn’t held any of the mistakes we’ve made with him against us.”
“You know, we were trying to win the [Kentucky] Derby with him when he was 3,” he said, his eyes widening. “He’s got a lot of talent. You want to get that [Grade I] done, and for him to travel as much as he has, run as fast as he has consistently and probably his best race today is very rewarding.”
John Velazquez has been on and off Justin Phillip over the years, and was on this time.
So was his horse.
Velazquez trails Joel Rosario, who won three on the card, and Javier Castellano in the jockey standings, but is way in front in terms of big moments since the meet started.
Not only did he win the Whitney Handicap on Cross Traffic and the Vanderbilt this weekend, but he also passed Jerry Bailey for all-time wins at Saratoga and, just for good measure, won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park on Verrazano.
He engineered — and enjoyed — a perfect trip on Justin Phillip, taking advantage of the speed duel while also making sure the Florida shipper Bahamian Squall wasn’t able to blow through for the win. Caixa Eletronica, jumping into a Grade I eight days after winning an allowance race, never got in the game and finished last of five.
“It was very good,” Velazquez said. “The speed developed the way I expected it would. I was right behind those two horses [Gentlemen’s Bet and Delaunay], and I was aware of the horse that was inside [Bahamian Squall], so I kind of got him pinned down inside there. I made my move around the three-sixteenths pole, and he responded. When you ride these kinds of horses, and they respond to the things you want to do, it makes me look good.”
Justin Phillip has some interesting history at Saratoga.
His first attempt at breaking his maiden turned into a sideshow when he dropped Garrett Gomez in the post parade and ran clockwise past the clubhouse and grandstand and around to the backstretch before being corralled among the barns.
“First time out here, hot, got loose, jumped the back fence and wanted to go outside and see what’s it like,” Asmussen said with a chuckle.
After the Derby trail didn’t materialize, he was defined as a sprinter, but couldn’t get a big one, losing the Grade II Amsterdam and Grade I King’s Bishop as a 3-year-old.
He also lost the Vosburgh against older horses in 2011, then was 0-for-3 in Grade I’s last year, on a muddy track in the Vanderbilt to Poseidon’s Warrior in a tandem drift-out, and in the Vosburgh and BC Sprint, won by Trinniberg.
“Last year’s Vanderbilt looked like a good opportunity for him, and it was unfortunate for him not to win that day,” Asmussen said. “For everything to work out today, to have him in this position, a good draw, a good set-up . . . very rewarding.
“He doesn’t make an excuse, ever. He runs hard. Multiple different racetracks, Oaklawn, California . . . he runs hard everywhere, and I think he’s shown consistency in his sprint races. I love to have him at this level right now.”