Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
This week our focus falls on, what else, an unforgettable day in Baltimore.
If you were at Pimlico on Saturday for the Preakness Stakes – and have finally dried out – the memories of all the mud, fog, bog, and a sensational race won by exceptional 3-year-old will no doubt stay with you decades.
For longtime football fans there was the “Ice Bowl” between the Packers and Cowboys in Green Bay, a game that will be retold for as long as they play the sport.
The temperatures were below zero, at stake was a spot in the Super Bowl, and the opposing coaches, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, would become legendary, Hall of Fame figures. The icing on it all was that the game was decided on a touchdown in the closing seconds.
For horse racing fans, the 2018 Preakness will be their Ice Bowl. It will be remembered for rain, rain and more rain, an eerie fog that engulfed Pimlico for the race and a brilliant effort by undefeated Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Justify that kept alive trainer Bob Baffert’s bid for a second Triple Crown as the chestnut colt notched a half-length win over Bravazo, who hails from the barn of an equally famous trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
As much as the freaky weather conditions will add to the 143rd Preakness’ lasting fame, the race in and of itself deserved to be viewed on a bright, sunny day without a cloud in the sky so that everyone could see every single second of it.
Whether intended or not, 2-year-old champ and Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic hooked up with Justify shortly after the start and for the rest of the mile-and-three-sixteenths middle jewel of the Triple Crown they would not be separated by more than a length. That classic showdown, though obscured by fog, was the race within the race that added so much glitter to the son of Scat Daddy’s win in the slop at Pimlico. That Justify could hop tracks early in the race and then battle for so long with a horse as good as Good Magic, put him away and finally hold off a late bid by Bravazo to win by a half-length – especially in just his fifth career start - shows how he just might have that rare quality you find only in the upper echelon of champions.
“What Justify has done is pretty incredible,” Baffert said by phone on Monday, two days after he did something incredible by matching Lukas with a record 14th Triple Crown victory and securing a Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes for an unprecedented fifth time. “(He didn’t race at 2), but I think he got his foundation last weekend. That was a great foundation. When you can put away a champion like he did, that’s pretty impressive.”
Some might disagree with Baffert’s assessment since it was Justify’s smallest margin of victory after winning his first four starts by a combined 21 1/2 lengths and three rivals were within a length of him at the finish. Even Baffert thought that way, until he spoke with jockey Mike Smith.
“When he hit the wire, he won, but it looked like he was slowing down and out of gas. I was like everyone else. How am I going to win a Triple Crown off that race?” Baffert said. “Then when I talked to Mike, he said Justify wasn’t gassed, he was idling. He said he didn’t know they were that close at the finish. When they came to him, Justify wanted to take off again. I felt a lot better after talking to him.”
So now the next stop is Belmont Park on June 9 for the Belmont Stakes when Justify will try to become the 13th Triple Crown champion. Three years ago, Baffert and Zayat Stables’ American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought with their sweep and now he’s in position to become only the second trainer to handle two Triple Crown winners.
There surely will be pressure during the next three weeks, but not for the reasons one might expect.
“When I go for the Triple Crown, I don’t want to let the fans down. I know they paid to be there, there’s all that excitement and I feel more pressure about not letting them down than winning for myself,” Baffert said. “I’ve seen a big impact on ownership in horses since American Pharoah. People watched those races and saw the Zayats and thought it looked like fun. People have told me they bought horses because of American Pharoah. They liked the excitement and how the animals are beautiful. That’s why it’s important to have a horse going for the Triple Crown and why people root for it. It’s good for the sport and it’s fun for everyone.”
The Belmont Stakes is known as the “test of the champion” and that will surely be the case on June 9 when Justify will try to etch his name next to American Pharoah, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and eight other immortals.
If it turns out to be as exciting of a race as the Preakness, it will earn a special place among 150 editions of the Belmont – and hopefully this time, after wet tracks for the Derby and Preakness, Mother Nature will not be in attendance to add her brand of madcap color or cloud cover to the day.
Then again, maybe it’s not “mom” who is responsible for the wacky weather.
“When I got back to California, it was raining,” Baffert said. “Maybe it’s me.”
Maybe it is. We’ll know more about that – and where the horse who came in from the fog stands among the all-time greats – on June 9 at Belmont Park, rain or shine.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: