By the time the Kentucky Derby (GI) winner makes it to the second jewel of the Triple Crown in the Preakness Stakes (GI) every year, it’s no secret he wears a giant bullseye on his back — the target of those who finished behind him in the Run for the Roses, as well as for some fresh runners who try to use the two-week turnaround to their benefit. Strategies are carefully planned out, chinks in the Derby-winner’s armor are assessed and the connections of those who dare to challenge in Baltimore drop names and dollars into the Preakness entry box in hopes that their charge posts the upset and winds up wearing the blanket of Black-eyed Susans on the third Saturday every May.
This year, three runners who started in Louisville and four new faces aimed their crosshairs at Kentucky Derby winner Justify to no avail, as the Bob Baffert-trained son of Scat Daddy withstood every challenge — including the wet weather — to capture 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes by a hard-fought half-length. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was back aboard for the victory, which was completed in front of 134,487 appreciative fans, most of which only saw glimpses of the copper streak through the heavy fog that descended upon Pimlico earlier in the afternoon.
Champion two-year-old and Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic went right to the front with Justify after the break and, after Justify jumped some tracks and switched leads a couple of times past the wire the first time and settled in, the two battled on the extremely sloppy and sealed main track through splits of :23.11, :47.19 and 1:11.42 for the first three-quarters of a mile.
Justify always maintained an ever-so-slight advantage over Good Magic, who was racing down closer to the rail, which had pooled with water from the steady rains over the past few days, the excessive runoff finally having nowhere else to go. With the thick fog, the pair became mostly silhouettes as they ran up the backside, their distinctive white faces about the only thing anyone could pick out with any certainty.
The two frontrunners rounded the bend in tandem and, at the top of the stretch, Smith let Justify out just a bit and just as it looked like he was drawing away, Good Magic dug in for more and held on to his position on the leader’s flank several strides past the quarter pole. Smith pulled out his patented left-handed stick and roused Justify a couple of times just as he logged the mile in 1:36.10 and, after a couple more taps from the whip, Smith put it away and vigorously hand rode his mount to the victory, appearing unaware of the unlikely late charge from a pair of rivals.
Bravazo, who raced third in the early going, gave the winner the biggest challenge late and was storming down the lane on the far outside, but, getting up for second. Tenfold was also moving strongly late and was a neck shy of Bravazo at the wire, while Good Magic faded within the last 50 yards to finish fourth.
Lone Sailor, Sporting Chance, Diamond King and Quip completed the order of finish.
At odds of 2-5, Justify paid $2.80, $2.80 and $2.60. Bravazo was worth $7.60 and $4.80 at odds of 15-1, capping off the $13.70 exacta for $1. Tenfold returned $6.80 at 26-1, completing the $148.30 trifecta, also for $1.
“It’s unbelievable,” Smith said of his second career Preakness win. “It’s a dream come true, to be honest with you. It’s been 25 years since I was blessed to win my first one, which was here, and to go into it with Bob and [wife] Jill and the whole crew, WinStar and China Horse Club and everyone who’s involved, Jack Wolf, I’m just so blessed to be riding for these people right now. I’m on cloud nine.
“He got a little tired. This is the hardest race that he’s had, but he was also waiting on competition. It was awful loud out there and the track’s pretty narrow and he was kind of looking and jumping tracks and doing a few things, but it was a good kind of tired. It was that kind of tired I’m hoping, anyway, and I feel like he’ll move forward.”
The partnership of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners owns Justify, who was purchased for $500,000 as a Keeneland September yearling in 2016. He is undefeated in five career starts, including the Kentucky Derby and Santa Anita Derby (GI), and has earned $2,998,000. The son of the graded stakes-placed Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic was bred in Kentucky by John D. Gunther.
“It was a nail-biter,” Baffert said of his seventh Preakness winner. “They put it to us. That was a good horse [Good Magic] and it was like they had their own private match race. Somebody had to give, and I’m glad it wasn’t us. I’m so happy that we got it done. He’s just a great horse, to handle all that pressure and keep on running. He had to really work for it and I’m happy for the horse and Mike and all the connections that we pulled it out. They ran fast; I’ve never had one run that fast here. It took a lot out of me, but I’m just glad… everybody came to see a good horse race. It was a great horse race. Good Magic, I tip my hand to him. He made us really work. He’s a really good horse.”
Trainer Chad Brown wasn’t as pleased with Good Magic’s performance, however.
“No, I didn’t want the horse on the lead. I’m disappointed with the trip. 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.
“[The media] asked me all week what I wanted to do — sit off the pace and follow (Justify) around the track,” Brown lamented. “And he’s following us around. Obviously, I entered my horse in the race because I thought there was a chance that [Justify] could be beaten and we could win the race. But it just wasn’t a good fit. I would have liked to see a different scenario where maybe we were just off the pace a little bit and not being pressed on the fence the whole way. I’m disappointed.
“The post really hurt. When the horse broke so well as he did and you’re inside the other horse it doesn’t leave the rider with too many choices.”
Though Good Magic is unlikely to make the Belmont Stake in three weeks, Justify won’t be the only Preakness starter in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. In addition to a handful of Derby runners who skipped the second jewel, both Bravazo and Tenfold are expect to be in New York.
“What I saw of it, I liked a lot,” Hall of Fame conditioner D. Wayne Lukas said of Bravazo’s Preakness performance. “I want them to extend it another 50 yards. He was running on in the end. Luis [jockey Saez] did a good job. A very good horse won the race, a very good horse. We ran at him. We kept him honest just like we said we would. Bob’s tough in these and if he gets the right horse, he’s really tough. But, kudos to him, and we’ll see what happens in the next one.”
“I really think he will bounce back pretty good. You never know, but I think he’ll bounce back pretty good. We’ve got three weeks. I’m pretty confident, he’ll be OK. I thought all day long we were going to be very competitive.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen was equally happy with Tenfold’s performance.
“Honestly, you saw them go by the first time, and I was concerned with where he was,” Asmussen said. “He was a little farther back than I thought he would be. He was pretty wide around the first turn. You see them down the backside, and you know he got in a great position into the second. When they came out of the fog, he was in the game. I’d say he got beat three-quarters of a length for all of it. He’s a top-class horse who is getting better. We were three-quarters of a length away from where we want to be, let’s figure out how to get it.”
When asked about Tenfold participating in the Belmont Stakes, Asmussen said, “Absolutely. Heck yes.”
The 150th Belmont Stakes will be run on Saturday, June 9.