Despite the rain, the happiness of the crowd attending the 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes could not be dampened. Gloomy skies were defied by fans who flouted Black-Eyed Susan’s on their hats. There were many stunning standouts who wore yellow pops of color to perk up the crowd. Just like the Kentucky Derby, fans came prepared and were ready to witness racing history no matter the weather.
As the day progressed, the track was mantled with fog. So this meant that the track conditions were sealed, sloppy, and foggy. Photographers laughed as they trundled through the mud to the opposite side of the track to find their positions as the Preakness horses began the walk over from the barns. The photographers crossed the track in the mud, keeping the pedestrian tram clean for the VIP guests visiting the glass chalets in the infield.
The horses approached as they were led by their faithful grooms and trainers. Some trainers have somehow mastered walking in the mud while remaining spotless. Rodolphe Brisset, unfortunately, was mud bedraggled but his face shined in sheer joy as he savored walking Quip through the slop. The police horses majestically surveyed the crowd and greeted the Preakness horses as they approached.
Some of the contenders were saddled inside in the warmth of the crowded paddock. Others were saddled outside on the turf course while their connections joined them. Chad Brown marched Good Magic across the track swiftly. The jockeys snaked down the stairway from the jockey’s room in their immaculate silks. There was a bit of confusion as they all turned naturally toward the paddock and some had to be rerouted across the track to the turf course. The tram had been removed to accommodate the arrival of the horses so the jockeys had to slosh in the slop. Some stopped and took a good look at what they had to walk in and laughed. For they knew that some of them were going to be covered head to toe in mud though most hoped they would be ahead of the mudslingers.
The horses were saddled and the jockeys were given a leg up. Buglers Steve Buttleman and Bethann Dixon smarty played the “Call to the Post” as the horses headed to the track. The U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club sang the traditional third verse of “Maryland, My Maryland.” The pony leading Lone Sailor was decorated with Black-Eyed Susans and glitter. Mike Smith sat quietly on Justify with his usual game face on, but for one second he allowed himself a very small smile. Justify swished his tail and shook his head in readiness. In no time at all, he came flying down the track in his quest for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
They disappear into the fog and everyone turns their attention to the big screen. They fade into the distance then they just flat out evaporate. The big screen is a sea of gray. The crowd is yelling. The photographers are looking up for any indication that the horses are approaching the finish line. In a perfect movie-like moment, two chestnuts with white blazes emerge. The fog shrouds the field and it’s hard to see who is who. The crowd roars and the photographers are frantic as Justify flies to the finish line.
There is mud everywhere as the horses return from the race. Blinkers are pulled off, leaving some horses with a surreal raccoon-like mask around their eyes. Jockeys confer with trainers and grooms tend to the horses and swiftly walk them back to the barns. It’s time for the NBC celebration in front of the Victorian Cupola. High above the trophy festivities, Dr. Lawrence Jones paints the WinStar Farm silks on the historic horse-and-jockey weather vane.
Sitting behind the cupola is a quiet place where one can gather their wits after the frantic, frenzied finish of the 143rd Preakness. It’s a small innocuous tent that features a couple of tables on a dais in front of a small formation of folding chairs and a wall of television cameras sitting on a platform. Winning Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith stepped over a metal support bar through a seam in the tent and took his place on the stage quietly with no fanfare. His arrival was announced to the gathering press and he took several moments to compose himself. He didn’t arrive like a conquering champion. He was thoughtful, quiet, and reflective. His head lowered for a moment underneath his black baseball hat and he looked exhausted and relieved.
Kenny Troutt and Elliott Walden of Winstar Farm and China Horse Club’s Teo Ah Khing arrived and looked toward Smith, who had started answering questions. His Winstar silks were spotless which indicated that he kept Justify up front the entire race. Mike was analyzing the race when trainer Bob Baffert stepped in.
At one point, Smith looked over while the others were talking and Baffert smiled at him. There was a look between them that covered years of history — of races lost and races won. It was a smile of victory but with the weight of the world on it. Both men knew where they were headed, which is right smack into the glare of a Triple Crown attempt. One has already won it and the other wants to win it. Baffert lightened the mood immediately with his light-hearted banter.
He said, “I am very excited to hear that my buddy Wayne Lukas ran second. That’s awesome. Never count him out! He was always under the radar, but I’m glad that he ran second. I didn’t know whose horse it was. I knew there was a horse coming. I didn’t know until I got to the podium.” He continued, “When the expectations are so high, it’s just added pressure for everyone involved. The two weeks were a long two weeks. We have been here before. You never really get used to it. It’s exciting and stressful. We have such a passion for it. That’s why we do it. We love it.”
Smith added, “I think that it’s everyone’s dream come true. When you are a kid starting to ride or learning how to ride, it’s always the Kentucky Derby — although for me it was the All American; I was a Quarter-Horse guy to start with. To win the Kentucky Derby if you are blessed with that, then of course you want one chance at the Triple Crown. At my age, what a way to ride into the sunset. Although, I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon. I didn’t get that opportunity at a young age. I don’t think I was ready for it. Right now, I really am. I’m feel really happy and I am at peace. I can’t wait to get to the next place.”
Baffert added, “I knew we had the horse to do it. He’s a beautiful horse. I am just so proud of my team. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of pressure. We might not show it because we’ve been through this. We hide it pretty well. But believe me, we are on pins and needles.” Thanking the connections he said, “We are all in this together like Camp Justify.”
Baffert said that Justify’s win reminded him of American Pharoah’s Derby win. “He had to fight. It was sort of like the same thing. He had to really dig deep and ran with some good horses. He ran so incredible in the Derby. You can only get away with that when you have a superior horse like he is. Good Magic really put it to us, almost like Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. They didn’t give it away. He was going to make us earn it. This is what makes horse racing so great. These great horses. They just define themselves when they get in that situation. And today he just showed not only is he this big, beautiful, gorgeous horse, but he is all racehorse and that’s what it took to win today.”
Baffert continued talking and got lost in his words and thoughts. Sentences became half-sentences and then reduced to phrases as he sought words to describe Justify. “Since the first time since we breezed him at Santa Anita and he broke his maiden, we’ve always known. We’re pretty confident that we something special. Something like an American Pharoah type or like Arrogate. Something special. They are just like … they are freaky horses just like all the greats. Like Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid …
“But one thing about him is he’s a big, heavy, strong horse. Races don’t knock him out. He will eat everything tonight. He’s just a massive. He’s just a chiseled …” Baffert stopped and looked at the expecting crowd of reporters as he searched for words. “I can’t. I know you keep hearing me say the same thing. Such a beautiful horse. I mean you could. I would love to put a Western saddle on him and ride him in the Rose Parade if they would let me. He’s just so beautiful.”
And with that gorgeous image rattling in our brains, it was time to move on. Minds were already thinking about the Belmont and Justify’s future attempt at the Triple Crown. This stunning chestnut with the startling blaze turns heads whether he is walking, trotting, galloping, or blazing across the finish line. All eyes will be on him and Team Justify as they approach making horse racing history. It’s time for the hopes and dreams of another Triple Crown. He might never be a parade horse in the Rose Bowl Parade but he certainly is already a handsome part of horse racing history. Even the fog couldn’t hide his glory.