June 19, 2019

What Justify and Pimlico had in common on Preakness Day

It's on to the Belmont Stakes for Justify as he seeks to sweep the Triple Crown (Horsephotos.com)

Justify and Pimlico Race Course are alike in one respect. They both made it through the weekend without getting to show their best.

The record shows that Justify earned a 98 BRIS Speed rating in winning the Preakness (G1) on Saturday, down four points from the 102 he earned winning the Kentucky Derby (G1). Both are far below his Santa Anita Derby (G1) figure of 114, the type of number generally posted by a top-flight older horse rather than a three-year-old in early April making his third career start less than two months after its debut.

How a figure was earned is generally as important as the number itself. As Kellie Reilly has written, the dynamics of the Preakness were unique in the short, compressed career Justify has had in a mere three months. For the first time an opponent close to his own talent level took him on from the start. The pace might have been slower than in the Derby, but make no mistake, this was a dogfight between two quality opponents.

Both Justify and Good Magic had every right to be fatigued in the final furlong. It’s a testament to Justify’s immense talent that he had enough in reserve to keep going and hang on against a horse like Bravazo that was in the catbird seat much of the way and arguably had more right to improve on short rest than either of the top two choices. Tenfold, who rushed on for third, was a fresh horse also likely to improve and who hadn’t had to deal with the Derby grind.

Good Magic finished only a length behind Justify, a highly credible effort for a horse who involuntarily found himself having to do the dirty work of keeping Justify honest, a job most everyone predicted beforehand would have been taken up by others.

There is certainly some cause for concern about Justify getting 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont Stakes (G1). No one is likely to win a pace duel against him. He’s just too good. Presumably when he does put away whichever horse challenges him early, however, there will be a much longer distance from that point to the finish line than was the case in either the Derby or Preakness. The Belmont competition will be stronger and fresher, too.

Keep in mind, though, that Justify could be more formidable in conditions better than he’s seen the last couple weeks. Races that occur on off tracks might not necessarily be the best indicator of where a horse presently stands in its form cycle. He’s had to deal with two of them in a row, and who’s to say he might not have proved more authoritative in fast conditions?

It’s too soon to be firmly for or against Justify in the Belmont. The unique circumstances surrounding the Preakness make it an opaque piece of evidence on which to form such a judgment.

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Pimlico is the current home of the Preakness Stakes (Vance Hanson photo)

The seven inches of rain Pimlico absorbed Preakness week resulted in more leaks than usual throughout the aging facility and thus some dissatisfied attendees (one of whom might have mistaken me for a track employee when drawing my attention to an unusable Grandstand Upper Box). Also, the unfortunate and much lamented saturation of an otherwise pristine-looking turf course rendered it virtually unusable on the two biggest days of the Maryland racing calendar. Then, of course, there was the fog.

Bettors still pushed more than $112 million through the windows on 28 races Friday and Saturday, down from last year but not catastrophically so. It could have been a lot worse.

At a time when the historic oval’s future looks dimmer and dimmer, this highly unusual bit of weather unfortunately magnified the current facility’s faults. The Stronach Group’s COO Tim Ritvo made it pretty clear in comments to the media Saturday afternoon where the future of the track and its position as host of the Preakness stands.

I know I’m not alone among folks in my profession and in the broader fan base who are supporters of the continuation of racing at Pimlico. We appreciate the history of that hallowed ground and its importance in the landscape of the American turf. Privately, and occasionally in public, I’ve expressed as much and will do so until the last ditch. The realist in me, though, recognizes that its time is nearly up.

All jokes and wisecracks to the contrary, the Pimlico facilities don’t date to the track’s founding in 1870. The current grandstand is roughly 60 years old, while the existing clubhouse replaced a beautiful older one that was consumed by fire in 1966. If racetrack infrastructure has a certain sell-by date, a number of other facilities around the country will undoubtedly be making some hard decisions in the coming years.

We’ll simply have to live with the decisions made about Pimlico’s future, whatever they may be. It should be acknowledged, though, that the Preakness and the sport will never again be the same without it.

4 Comments on What Justify and Pimlico had in common on Preakness Day

  1. DeFrancis let Pimlico run down. Stronach hasn’t improved it. Neither were/are good stewards of this facility. The area it is in hasn’t helped Pmlico’s plight.

  2. Thanks for a good article. I certainly understand why Stronach will not pour improvement money into Pimlico with Laurel so close. The economics of doing so just don’t make sense. Great race, great horse. Can’t wait for the Belmont. Sure hope Winstar enters Audible. Choosing to duck the Belmont would forever create a race with an asterisk in my mind. Justify deserves the right to go up against the best out there and win a Triple Crown with no questions if he is good enough.

  3. The current clubhouse wasn’t built to replace the one that burned down in 1966. It was built before that happened in 1959. The existing grandstand was built before that but was open air and then they enclosed it but I’m not sure what year that was done. But none of what remains at Pimlico was from 1870.

    • Thank you for the clarification on the clubhouse. Early to mid-1950s perhaps on the grandstand?

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