Sloppy. Foggy. Speed-favoring. Chalky.
Those are the words that described the whole day Saturday at Pimlico. So it should have been obvious beforehand that Justify and Good Magic would be eyeball to eyeball for most of the Preakness Stakes.
“Oh, man, it was a nail-biter,” Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert said after he breathed a victorious sigh or relief. “It was like they had their own private match race.”
In the toughest challenge he has had in his five-race, 90-day career, Justify (2-5) finally wore down Good Magic turning into the stretch and held off the late charges of runner-up Bravazo (15-1) and third-place Tenfold (26-1) to win the Preakness.
With a time of 1:55.93 that was five-hundredths of a second faster than Cloud Computing’s win on a dry track a year ago, Justify won by a half-length on a track made sloppy by a week of rain and largely invisible by a thick fog. Good Magic (7-2) missed hitting the board by a neck and wound up fourth.
It was Baffert’s seventh win in the Preakness, tying the record held by 19th-century trainer R.W. Walden. More significant, Justify is in position to be the 13th Triple Crown winner if – and a big if – he wins the Belmont Stakes in three weeks.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Mike Smith, who got his second Preakness win after winning his first on Prairie Bayou in 1993. “It’s been 25 years since I was blessed to win my first one here. I’m on Cloud Nine.”
Smith was floating, Baffert was grinning, and Justify was spent. Although the early fractions were not as insane as they were two weeks ago when he won the Kentucky Derby, the hammer-and-tong fight that he had with Good Magic appeared to take a lot out of him.
“He got a little tired,” Smith said. “But he was also waiting on competition (at the end).He was kind of looking and jumping (tractor) tracks and doing a few things, but it was a good kind of tired. It was that kind of tired – I’m hoping anyway – where I feel like he’ll move forward.”
Smith said that Justify was distracted by tractor markings that grooved the course going into the first turn. At that point jockey José Ortiz had moved Good Magic to the rail and, unlike the Derby where he ran fifth early, had him close to the lead. Trainer Chad Brown was not happy about it after the race.
“I didn’t want the horse on the lead,” Brown said. “I’m disappointed with the trip. 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. I’m disappointed.”
Ortiz said the pace – 23.11 seconds for the first quarter-mile, 47.19 for the half – left him with no choice. “I tried to take back a little,” he said, “but the pace wasn’t too fast. We were going very easy. I made my run the same time (Justify) did, but I didn’t have the horse underneath me.”
Justify assumed control of the race just before turning into the stretch, but that was also when Bravazo started to close a five-length gap between him and the lead.
“Because my horse doesn’t have a quick turn of foot, it took me time to get him going,” said Luís Sáez, who was riding Bravazo for the first time. “He was coming and coming down the stretch, and I thought we were going to catch Justify.”
“I want them to extend it another 50 yards,” Bravazo’s trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
In only his fourth race and just his second graded stakes, Tenfold was ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr. on a four-wide trip into the stretch. He split horses in his charge to hit the board, coming up a neck short of second and three-quarters of a length from Justify.
“We were three-quarters of a length away from where we want to be,” Tenfold’s trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Let’s figure out how to get it.”
Asked about challenging Justify in the Belmont, Asmussen said, “Absolutely. Heck, yes.”
For Baffert, this will be old hat. He is now 5-for-5 with Derby winners in the Preakness, but American Pharoah three years ago is the only one he turned into a Triple Crown winner. Now he tries to do it with a Scat Daddy-sired, chestnut colt that has grown to an impressive 16-hands-3-inches tall and 1,268 pounds before he was shipped here from California.
“He’s a beautiful horse, and I’m just so proud of my team,” Baffert said. “It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of pressure, and we might not show it because we’ve been through this, but we hide it pretty well. Believe me, we’re all on pins and needles.”
Notes from the Preakness
The Daily Racing Form reported that Hofburg (seventh in the Kentucky Derby), Vino Rosso (ninth) and Free Drop Billy (16th) are also in the mix for the Belmont with Audible (third), My Boy Jack (fifth) and Solomini (10th) possibly in a quandary because of common connections.
The Maryland Jockey Club said that 134,487 people attended the Preakness – complete with a concert headlined by rapper Post Malone. Most of the bettors in the crowd were stymied by a chalky day. The longest shot to win here Saturday went off at 5-2. The sloppy main track was speed favoring; no winner was called more than two lengths off the lead.
The day was marred not only by early rain and late fog but by a slew of scratches and changes beforehand. Only one race – the Grade 3 Gallorette won by Ultra Brat – was run on a turf course that was rated soft.
Ron Flatter’s racing column returns to its usual Friday schedule next week. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.