Justify speeds through the fog to move closer to Triple Crown
Mike Smith rode the Bob Baffert-trained horse to victory in the Preakness Stakes
Justify, ridden by jockey Mike Smith, crosses the finish line to win the 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images
The day looked much the same. There were wastebaskets catching rainwater seeping through the ceiling, cardboard and wood chips and carpets meant to soak up days worth of dampness at Pimlico Race Course. The track resembled peanut butter, not dirt, and the fog rolled in as if on cue, producing a thick white curtain as the horses loaded the gate, leaving the race caller to rely on television monitors, rather than what he saw with his own eyes.
The fans, in rain boots and parkas, were not deterred by the dreadful conditions: They wanted to witness the second act of what they hoped would soon become horse racing lore.
This was not 2015, when the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah went to the lead of the Preakness Stakes and stayed there, winning by seven lengths to capture the second jewel in a storybook Triple Crown run — the first in 37 years.
On Saturday here, it was Justify, also trained by Baffert, who went to the lead, but he was soon challenged by Good Magic, the runner-up at the Kentucky Derby, so much so that their battle resembled a match race going into the stretch. But Justify shook free, and then hung on to defeat Bravazo by a half-length in the 143rd Preakness and set up a shot at the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in New York in three weeks.
“Not even the fog could stop him,” the race caller, Larry Collmus, exclaimed as Justify crossed the finish line for his fifth victory in as many tries and his third on a wet track.
With the Hall of Famer Mike Smith on his back, Justify completed the mile and three-sixteenths in one minute 55.93 seconds and rewarded his mud-caked backers with $2.80 on a $2 bet to win. Tenfold finished third, while Good Magic faded to fourth. “I’m disappointed,” was about all Good Magic’s trainer, Chad Brown, could muster.
Baffert said Justify’s exhilarating victory had probably taken more out of him than it did out of the horse. “It’s a lot of pressure,” Baffert said, “and we might not show it because we’ve been through this, but we hide it pretty well.”
Smith, who on Saturday got his sixth win in a Triple Crown race on the same grounds where he captured his first 25 years ago, acknowledged afterward that Justify, the colt with a perfect record in often imperfect conditions, was a little tired.
“A good kind of tired,” he said.
Smith, 52, was a good kind of tired, too, but he said he had more left to accomplish. “At my age, man, what a way to ride off into the sunset,” he said, “although I don’t plan to retire anytime soon.”
In five tries, Baffert has never lost the Preakness with a Derby winner. In fact, Justify’s victory tied him with R Wyndham Walden, who won seven editions in the 1800s, including five straight, for the most Preakness wins. He also earned a record 14th victory in a Triple Crown race. A race earlier, a Baffert-trained horse ridden by Smith, Ax Man, won by six and three-quarters lengths, perhaps foretelling what was about to happen next.
There was no question that Justify could handle the slop — in fact, he made it look easy amid a driving rain on the first Saturday in May, when he became the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without having competed as a two-year-old.
And Saturday’s conditions appeared just right for a repeat performance. “We probably cleaned out, I think, the entire state in terms of rain boots and ponchos,” said Belinda Stronach, the chairwoman and president of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico.
Still, Justify was no sure thing. This is horse racing, which has a way of spoiling even the rowdiest of parties.
The morning after the Derby, Baffert brought Justify out of his barn for a victory lap, but the horse appeared agitated and unable to put much weight on his left hind leg. Baffert did not notice anything wrong at the time, but when videos of the appearance were posted on social media, speculation swirled that Justify might be lame.
Baffert later said Justify had been dealing with “scratches,” a skin irritation that is common among horses who encounter wet surfaces. But when Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarians examined him two days later, they found no sign of a rash, instead saying he had a bruised heel.
After a few more days of rest, Justify returned to the track looking like his old self. Before he left Kentucky for Baltimore, he was re-shod and an adhesive reinforcement was placed on his left hind hoof. Baffert said he was confident that Justify was ready.
Baffert made good on his promise Saturday as Justify looked no worse for the wear while fending off his competition in front of an announced crowd of 134,487, more than the 131,680 that watched American Pharoah.
Justify breathes the same air as American Pharoah, Baffert boasted all week. After the race, he felt the same. “Unbelievable,” Baffert kept repeating. “He’s just so beautiful.”
Just don’t expect a show-and-tell at the barn in the morning, Baffert said. He had learned his lesson.
Justify is the 36th horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness, but only 12 horses have pulled off the Triple Crown sweep.
Yet on a day that began with a royal wedding, Justify sure appeared worthy of a Triple Crown coronation in three weeks’ time. All that is left is one more race and one more victory — and one more rainstorm, his team surely hopes — to land him among the titans of the sport of kings. – New York Times service