British Columbia

Kentucky Derby winner created by commuting B.C.-based breeder with 'out of control' horse habit

The fleet chestnut thoroughbred named Justify who won the Kentucky Derby yesterday was bred by a Canadian family with an "out of control" passion for horses, admits Langley-based breeder John Gunther.

‘It’s an unbelievable achievement to breed a Kentucky Derby horse'

Kentucky Derby winner Justify checks out the crowd outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (Garry Jones/Associated Press)

The fleet chestnut thoroughbred named Justify who won the 144th Kentucky Derby yesterday was bred by a Canadian family with an "out of control" passion for horses, admits Langley-based breeder John Gunther.

He said his own heart was galloping as Justify splashed through a sloppy track to win the prestigious race on Saturday.

"I knew he was going to win. He's got such a tremendous stride and he's such an athlete," said the long-time breeder who splits life between B.C. and Kentucky.

Justify became the first inexperienced horse to win the historic race breaking the so-called "Apollo's curse," named after the last horse to do this in 1882.

Gunther credits a crack jockey and his analytical daughter who chucked an investment banking career for horse breeding.

She was the one who paired Justify's parents.

Watch Justify win the race here.

The pre-race favourite became the first colt in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old 0:57

"Amazing horse," jockey Mike Smith told reporters at the track.

"He's got that 'it' factor. He was loving this stuff."

Interest in Justify's bloodline has piqued since his victory, said Gunther, who grew up on a Calgary-area farm and bought his own in Langley.

He bred his first foal in 1970 and took over Kentucky-based Glennwood Farm 19 years later, in the epicentre of American thorough-bred racing country.

He now commutes between B.C. and Kentucky, breeding champion racers with his daughter Tanya.

"It's an unbelievable achievement to breed a Kentucky Derby horse and I give her full marks for that," he said.

Tanya Gunther grew up in Langley riding horses, her dad said.

He's got that 'it' factor.- Mike Smith, jockey

She then went off to London to study finances at the London School of Business and spent a few years working as an investment banker, before returning to her first passion — horses.

Trainer Bob Baffert, right, leads Justify out of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs the morning after winning the 144th Kentucky Derby. (The Associated Press/Garry Jones)

Gunther said she then used her analytical mind to pore over pedigrees and paired Justify's famous father — Scat Daddy— with a mare named Stage Magic that the Gunthers own.

Scat Daddy won the Champagne Stakes and the Florida Derby, among other races, but he was injured when he ran the Kentucky Derby and put out to stud.

Stage Magic's other foals are also of interest with Justify's success.

Justify was sold as a yearling for $500,000 in 2016.

Now he's in the running for the Triple Crown if he takes three top races — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Famous sire

And that's big business.

The stallion who sired Justify fetched up to $150,000 for stud fees (the price to impregnate a mare), by his death.

Tanya Gunther is nuzzled by a horse at Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. (Glennwood Farm)

"[Scat Daddy] would probably be rated the number one stallion in America if he'd lived," said Gunther, who said number one stallions can command stud fees that top $400,000.

Glennwood only paid $35,000 because Gunther said his daughter spotted the stallion early.

Gunther laughs when he thinks how it all started with a foal he and his wife bred in B.C.

That horse went on to win a few races at Hastings Park Thoroughbred race track in Vancouver.

By then the family was hooked.

"That got me really interested in it. Then I just sort of got out of control would be a good way to put it."

Justify, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, crosses the finish line to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend

With files from Canadian Press