June 19, 2019

Justify sets up Triple Crown bid with hard-fought Preakness victory

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

BALTIMORE — In a race largely unseen except by the participants and a few well-placed television cameras, Justify emerged from a dense fog to claim Saturday’s $1.5 million Preakness (G1) at Pimlico by a half-length, setting up a bid for a Triple Crown sweep in three weeks at the Belmont Stakes (G1).

This Preakness, held over a track that had been saturated by rain that persisted in the city for a week, was a record-tying seventh in the race for trainer Bob Baffert, who equaled the total set by R. Wyndham Walden in the late 19th century. For jockey Mike Smith, it was his first Preakness win in a quarter-century, since Prairie Bayou in 1993.

As in the Kentucky Derby (G1) two weeks ago, Justify’s superiority was severely put to the test. In Louisville, the physically impressive son of Scat Daddy dueled through a fast opening half-mile yet continued to find more and won by 2 1/2 lengths over a sloppy track, ending a 136-year losing skid in the Derby by horses unraced at two.

Heavily favored at 2-5, Justify did not have to run nearly as fast in the early stages of the Preakness, but his fitness was tested from the start as juvenile champion Good Magic, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and clear second choice in the wagering, took it to Justify passing the stands and did not yield until near the end of the race.

Justify held a short lead over Good Magic passing the stands and into the first turn. The pair were generally on even terms down the backside, based on camera angles, but Good Magic appeared to poke his head in front briefly rounding the far turn as the two began to separate themselves from the rest. The fractions were :23.14, :47.19, and 1:11.42.

Approaching the turn for home, camera angles again suggested Justify had begun to edge clear from his determined foe, but as they and the rest began to emerge from the fog, the margin was closer than it appeared. Still, when visibility was better, it was evident Justify had finally gotten the upper hand in what Baffert described as “their own private match race.”

“Somebody had to give, and I’m glad it wasn’t us,” Baffert said.

The battle took some starch out of Justify and Good Magic, enabling longshots Bravazo and Tenfold to make belated rallies that fell just short.

“Although he got tired today, he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said of Justify. “A bit of the greenness came out today, but he also got pushed pretty hard early on.”

Owned in partnership by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing, Justify returned $2.80 to win after covering 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.93.

Attempting to give Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas his own record-tying seventh Preakness win, Bravazo narrowly missed at odds of 15-1.

“What I saw of it, I liked a lot. I want them to extend it another 50 yards,” Lukas said. “We kept him honest just like we said we would.”

Tenfold, the longest shot in the race at 26-1, finished a neck behind in third, with Good Magic fourth by the same margin. The order of finish was rounded out by Lone Sailor, Sporting Chance, Diamond King, and Quip.

Trainer Chad Brown was unhappy with Good Magic’s placement in the Preakness.

“I’m disappointed with the trip,” Brown said. “The post didn’t help. We were inside [Justify] the whole way. Unfortunately, our horse took the worst of it being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. He’s just not a horse that runs on the lead, so I’m pretty disappointed.

“You guys asked me all week what I wanted to do — sit off the pace and follow [Justify] around the track. And he’s following us around.”

Brown had already said beforehand that, regardless of the Preakness result, Good Magic would not be a candidate for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

The “Test of the Champion,” however, will indeed be that for Justify, who is expected to face such rivals as Audible, the Kentucky Derby third-place finisher, and Vino Rosso, both trained by Todd Pletcher, and the Bill Mott-trained Hofburg, all of whom will be fresh horses off a five-week rest.

“He has to show us, he has to come out of this race well, and he’s got to be training really well,” Baffert said. “I did the same thing with American Pharoah, all my horses that ran the Triple Crown, they have to be 100 percent. And so we’ll just — he’ll dictate.”

Justify’s ascendency from an unraced three-year-old as late as February 18 to a dual classic winner three months later has been with a rapidity unseen in modern times. He remains unbeaten from five starts, having won on debut by 9 1/2 lengths, followed by a 6 1/2-length allowance win and a three-length tally in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).

“Well, since the first time we worked him, raced him at Santa Anita, and when he broke his maiden, we’ve always known, we were pretty confident we had something really, really special, something like an American Pharoah type, like Arrogate, something special — they’re freaky horses, just like all the greats, like Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid.”

That is one of the few things that became crystal clear in a rain- and fog-filled week at Old Hilltop.