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Preakness field comes down to Justify's heel

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Justify_Alex_Evers
Justify came away from his Kentucky Derby victory with a tender left hind heel, but he appears to be on track to race in next week's Preakness Stakes. (Alex Evers photo)

Las Vegas

Did you hear the one about the horse that got diaper rash on his foot? A one-liner like that should end with a forgettable punch line, not a swirl of unending, self-stoking skepticism.

After trainer Bob Baffert said Monday that Justify had a bruised left hind heel that he compared with infant dermatitis, er, diaper rash, the Kentucky Derby winner’s every move has been put under a microscope.

No wonder a few hundred people were watching Thursday morning when Justify got back on the track and had an easy, 1½-mile gallop at Churchill Downs, nine days before he continues his Triple Crown bid in the Preakness Stakes. Afterward, Wynn Las Vegas race-book boss Johnny Avello made Justify (1-2) an odds-on favorite to win next Saturday at Pimlico in Baltimore.

“Maybe that will wash away all the rumors,” Baffert said back in California. “It was a minor issue, and we tried to downplay it, but he is the Derby winner, so it’s going to be like that.”

It is not just the media and railbirds and clockers and bettors who are zeroed in on Justify’s foot. Rival trainers are paying close attention, especially as they consider whether to send their own horses to challenge Justify next week.

Still not certain that he will send Lone Sailor (30-1) to the Preakness, Tom Amoss posted a photo of Justify on Twitter, adding that “this is a good look at the (three-quarter) shoe to protect the bruise on the inside quarter of his foot.” Otherwise, Amoss said, “Justify looked exactly the same (Thursday) as he looked training before the Derby.”

But Lone Sailor is not a colt that will change the Preakness from a paid workout for Justify into something resembling a real race. Good Magic (3-1) and Bolt d’Oro (8-1) would make all the difference between Justify being a 2-5 and a 4-5 favorite.

“I’m on the fence,” Chad Brown said in New York about Derby runner-up Good Magic. “It’s still under consideration.”

Coming off his colt’s fade from third to 12th in the last half-mile of the Churchill Downs slop, it sounds like owner-trainer Mick Ruis wants to bring Bolt d’Oro to Baltimore, if only to even the score for losing last month’s Santa Anita Derby to Justify. But he stopped short of saying his decision was final.

“It doesn’t matter if Justify runs or not,” Ruis said. “We’re going to see how (Bolt d’Oro) is training up to it. If we feel we’re good to go in there, we’re going.”

Ruis’s daughter Shelbe did Tweet on Thursday that wherever Bolt is going next, formerly out-of-favor jockey Corey Nakatani would reclaim the ride that he lost after any number of circumstances, including last November’s wide trip to finish third as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

As for Amoss, he admitted, “I don’t think it’s any secret we’re all looking to see where Justify lands. I’m sure a lot of trainers are interested in how he’s doing.”

With his assistant Jimmy Barnes looking after Justify at Churchill Downs, and with no shortage of video from Thursday’s gallop, Baffert said that “he was pretty sharp.”

The crux of the foot matter came Sunday morning, when Baffert did what he always does after his horses’ big victories. He led Justify out of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs onto the rocky ground outside so that about 100 onlookers, including media, could get a look at him and take pictures. What he first thought was Justify’s normal antsiness was actually discomfort in that foot.

“Unfortunately we didn’t know he was a little bit tender back there,” Baffert said. “When he stepped on those rocks he flinched. Then the firestorm started. I was so mad at myself. I wanted to let everyone see him. But we got on it right away. It’s something that we work on with a lot of horses, especially when they run on an off track like that. It burns their heels; their feet are tender. It’s all behind us. We’re on to Baltimore.”

Proof will come in the days ahead each time Justify steps on the track. And each time he will be under scrutiny to see if the horse’s walk matches Baffert’s talk.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Preakness horses are Bravazo (18-1), the sixth-place Derby finisher, and Sporting Chance (28-1), fourth in Saturday’s Pat Day Mile, saw all he needed to see of Justify on Thursday.

“He looked excellent,” Lukas said. “I watched him gallop every step of the way. He jogged off perfectly sound. He turned around and galloped very strong. I know everybody was watching and looking for a little crack in the armor, but it wasn’t there. He showed no signs of stress. He had a wonderful day.”

Racing notes and opinions

Avello took a $150,000 hit on one futures ticket that paid off when Justify won the Kentucky Derby. It was a $500 bet at 300-1, and it was made just before Justify’s racing debut in mid-February. “A very respected horseman said to me, ‘Johnny, I’ve got a horse that I want to bet in the future book,’” Avello told VSiN last week on a pre-Derby special that aired on TVG. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you 250.’ He goes, ‘Come on, Johnny. 250?’ So I said, ‘I’ll give you 300.’” The bettor put up $500 right before Justify got on what is now a four-race undefeated streak. Considering how much Baffert was touting the colt before he ever raced, Avello cannot be blamed if he were still kicking himself over that one.

Here is the full list of Wynn odds for Preakness probables and possibles:

  1-2 *Justify (Kentucky Derby winner)

  3-1 Good Magic (2nd in the Derby)

  8-1 Bolt d’Oro (12th in the Derby)

12-1 *Quip (2nd in the Arkansas Derby)

18-1 Bravazo (6th in the Derby)

20-1 *Tenfold (5th in the Arkansas Derby)

25-1 Pony Up (3rd in the Lexington)

28-1 *Sporting Chance (4th in Pat Day Mile)

28-1 *Diamond King (Tesio winner)

30-1 Lone Sailor (8th in the Derby)

50-1 Givemeaminit (3rd in Pat Day Mile)

*Probable.

Carrying a 25-race winning streak, the Australian mare Winx was rated the world’s best racehorse this week in the Longines rankings issued by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. At 130 pounds, she was rated one pound better than the now-retired Gun Runner followed by Cracksman, Justify and West Coast. The Longines list is flawed because it grades a horse’s best race rather than its full résumé, and it leaves retired horses on the list for six extra months. Also, Arc winner Enable, now injured, is conspicuous by her absence because of her inactivity. Even so, the IFHA handicappers appear to have finally gotten this one right. Critics like me will say Winx has never raced outside Australia, but there is no other candidate that has her list of accomplishments, including three Cox Plate victories.

Trying to give its schedule more context, the Breeders’ Cup is grouping all its 2-year-old races on Friday this year with the rest of the races for 3-year-olds and up being grouped on Saturday. That means the Distaff and the Dirt Mile will be moved to Saturday, and the Juvenile will be the day before. Despite the committee-worked-all-spring-on-this-one moniker “Future Stars Friday,” this move makes more sense than the awkward grouping of all the female races on Friday between 2008 and 2011 (remember the Ladies Classic?). This year’s Breeders’ Cup is Nov. 2 and 3 at Churchill Downs.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include Pimlico Race Course caller Dave Rodman, who previews the Preakness Stakes, and Santa Anita Park morning-line writer Jon White, who cashed a big, Kentucky Derby futures ticket on Justify. There will also be a special, pop-up podcast posted next Thursday afternoon with VSiN handicapper Dave Tuley, Gaughan Gaming’s Vinny Magliulo and South Point’s Patrick McQuiggan, all focused on handicapping the Preakness. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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