BALTIMORE — So it rained four consecutive days, 7 inches all told at Pimlico. When the rain finally abated Saturday afternoon and it began to get warmer, a thick fog descended over the old track. With that hovering over the scene and the backstretch obscured from the grandstand during the Preakness, it was Kentucky Derby winner Justify emerging from the gloaming in the homestretch after a race-long duel with Derby runner-up Good Magic had finally been settled.
Once that challenge had finally been dispatched, Justify had to hold off two longshots who were coming fast in the final yards. Only a true champion could have found a way to the wire first. That would be Justify, now in line to become just the second horse to win the Triple Crown while unbeaten. He will try to duplicate Seattle Slew’s 1977 run to perfection when they hold the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
That will not be easy, just as this Preakness was anything but easy. In fact, it was brutal, the kind of race that could very well have an impact on the next one as Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, takes a horse to New York with a chance for his second Triple Crown in five tries.
The Belmont is for later. The Preakness, Baffert’s seventh, is for now. The win gave him his 14th Triple Crown race win, tying him for first with Wayne Lukas, whose Bravazo was the horse closing fast to get up for second, just a half length behind.
“That was a nail-biter,’’ Baffert said quite correctly. “They put it to us. … It was like they had their own private match race. Somebody had to give, and I’m glad it wasn’t us. … He’s just a great horse to handle all that pressure and keep on running.’’
What is even more amazing is that Justify did not make his first start until Feb. 18. That is now five races in the first 90 days of his career with two legs of the Triple Crown, absolutely unprecedented in horse-racing history.
Justify had won his first four races with relative ease. This was hard-earned from start to finish.
Justify’s jockey, Mike Smith, was probably hoping for an easy lead, but Good Magic’s jockey, Jose Ortiz, had more or less promised that if nobody else went with Justify, he would do it. So he did.
Good Magic ran brilliantly, but had to settle for fourth. Running against Justify is hard. Running with him is even harder.
Justify was born 35 days before American Pharoah won the 2015 Derby on the way to winning the Triple Crown. Now, the trainer of both horses, who had two excruciating seconds in the 1997 and 1998 Belmont in going for a Triple Crown, will go for a second in four years.
On a Pimlico card that had 43 scratches and produced eight winning favorites through the Preakness, Justify had the hardest time of any of them. By the clock, this will be Justify’s least impressive race. The effort, however, was unquestioned; the will to win impossible to miss.