Justify’s pursuit of the Triple Crown remained alive with a gutsy victory in the Preakness Stakes, prevailing through the fog and sloppy conditions at Pimlico. Kentucky Derby runner-up and 2-year-old champion Good Magic took it to him from an inside post, battling head-and-head with the odds-on favorite, and Bravazo and Tenfold made it interesting late by surging into the frame along the outside.
The Kentucky Derby winner never caught a breather as he received the first serious test during a three-month career and Justify displayed remarkable fortitude proving best by a half-length margin. He had registered triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings in his first four starts but netted a 98 figure in the Preakness.
The focus now turns to the final leg of the Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 9, and let’s hope for a fast track after rain-soaked programs at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Justify will seek to join Seattle Slew (1977) as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winner and the physically-imposing chestnut may face a decent-sized field with at least 10 rivals under consideration for the 1 ½-mile event.
Here is my early take on both sides of the Triple Crown argument:
Why Justify will win the Triple Crown:
Whether he’s showing the way or settles close, Justify will receive a plum trip on the front end of the Belmont and dominate the latter stages similar to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who never faced a serious challenge in a 2015 field lacking pace. Good Magic was able to dog Justify through the opening mile of the Preakness but the classy rival won’t be back in three weeks and there’s little speed being assembled, with no confirmed front-runners among the early list of Belmont probables.
“I think the Belmont will be easier on him, the way it’s set up,” said Bob Baffert, who tied D. Wayne Lukas for the most all-time Triple Crown race wins (14) with a record-equaling seventh Preakness win.
The Hall of Fame trainer exuded confidence Sunday morning, buoyed by how his star 3-year-old emerged from a hard-fought win. Baffert noted his pupil’s versatility and immense skill set: “Yesterday, they tried something different and he handled it. He’s not one-dimensional… I just feel with this horse, he’s so talented, something can go wrong and he’d still win. He’s a superior horse.”
Regardless of early positioning, Justify has shown the ability to settle into a comfortable rhythm before leaving the competition behind with an extra gear only special horses possess. The Belmont promises to fit his running style well and Justify can get back to winning with authority, opening up on the far turn and cruising home to Triple Crown glory.
Why Justify will come up short in the Belmont Stakes:
Give Justify credit – his incredible determination made for such a memorable Preakness – but the colt has been on an accelerated schedule with five starts in a 90-day window due to his inexperience. He suddenly appeared vulnerable for the first time last Saturday and the quick three-week turnaround will leave him over the top on a challenging Belmont Park track.
Known as “Big Sandy,” Belmont Park’s main track is known for being deep and tiring. A fast surface bears little resemblance to other tracks and some horses don’t take to the massive oval right away. Justify is being asked to handle plenty on the stretch out to 1 ½ miles.
In the 37-year-old gap between Affirmed and American Pharoah, 11 horses came up short of winning the Triple Crown in the Belmont and superiority wasn’t the deciding factor in most cases. The Triple Crown exacts an extreme toll upon participants and there’s reason to worry about a negative form cycle with Justify, who has posted declining BRIS Speed ratings in the last two starts, including a 16-point drop most recently from a career-topper in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Baffert probably hoped his charge would “bounce forward” and save something for the final leg, but Justify must rebound from a tough race in Baltimore.