Can it be?
Can it be that racing will have the great fortune of celebrating its second Triple Crown winner in four years?
Undefeated Justify moved to within one victory of accomplishing that when he braved sloppy conditions and a prolonged duel with Good Magic to emerge from the fog with a half-length victory against surging Bravazo in the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has never hesitated in linking his rising star to American Pharoah, his 2015 Triple Crown champion, by describing them as “superior” horses. Justify, winner of previous four starts by a combined 21 ½ lengths, continued to fill the bill in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
Justify, ridden by Mike Smith, was tested by Good Magic and Jose Ortiz as no horse ever tested him before. Good Magic pressured his rival through a sensible opening half-mile that went in 47.19 seconds but pressured him nonetheless. They remained engaged around the final turn until Justify gradually wore down the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve runner-up. Good Magic weakened to be fourth.
Smith said of what appeared to be a match race for a time, “They were pushing on me and pushing on me and pushing on me, trying to see if they could wear me out, I’m sure. I’m blessed to be on a horse with this much talent.”
Said Baffert in a post-race interview on NBC: “He’s just a great horse to handle all that pressure and keep on running.”
When Baffert was asked if Justify’s fifth race in 91 days might have taken a lot out of his horse, he quipped, “It took a lot out of me.”
Chad Brown, who trains Good Magic, said the plan was never to engage Justify that early. Good Magic broke sharply from post five, two positions inside Justify.
“I didn’t want the horse to be on the lead. I’m disappointed in 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. He didn’t give up. I know this horse very well and he’s not a horse to be on the lead. No way.”
Ortiz said of his decision-making, “I tried to take back a little, but the pace wasn’t too fast. He was relaxed, but Mike was just sitting chilly on his horse. We were going very easy. I made my run the same time he did, but I didn’t have horse underneath me.”
Justify’s performance paled in comparison to that of American Pharoah, who also withstood a gooey surface at Pimlico. He dominated the middle jewel of the Triple Crown by seven lengths en route to becoming the 12th Triple Crown legend and the first in 37 years.
Justify, a chestnut son of Scat Daddy, coped with a wet track for the third time. That includes a 2 ½-length Derby triumph in which he joined Apollo (1882) as the only horses to win the run for the roses after going unraced at 2.
With the notorious Curse of Apollo behind him, Justify will take dead aim at history in the 150thBelmont Stakes, renowned as the famed “Test of the Champion,” on June 9 at Belmont Park.
Smith, 52, said of his Triple Crown shot, “I don’t think I ever got that opportunity at a young age because I don’t think I was ready for it. Right now, I really am. I feel very happy. I’m at peace. I can’t wait to get to the next place.”
Baffert already added another chapter to his historic career by sending out his seventh Preakness winner, tying Robert Wyndham Walden for the all-time lead. He had been tied with the great D. Wayne Lukas for second. Lukas saddled longshots Bravazo and Sporting Chance in an unsuccessful bid for his seventh. Baffert matched Lukas’s record with his 14th win in a Triple Crown race.
Walden produced his seven victories in an extraordinary stretch from 1875-1888. Baffert, of course, is remarkable in his own right. All five of his Derby winners annexed the Preakness. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet 1998), War Emblem (2002) and Pharoah preceded Justify in accomplishing that.
Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, expressed optimism before the Preakness that Justify will ultimately make history.
“Do I see him doing it? Yes. Do I wish it? Yes. Is it important? Yes. Do you want another one to be the 13th? Yes,” said the always-emotional Zayat as he began to interview himself.