The reality of Saturday’s Preakness is that Kentucky Derby winner Justify is bigger, stronger and faster than all of his opponents — a good combination in any sport, including horse racing.
Could Justify lose? Of course. Secretariat lost. American Pharoah lost. Even great horses lose.
Unbeaten is hard in any sport. It is close to impossible in horse racing, where unforeseen in-race events often trump talent. Only one horse has ever won the Triple Crown while still unbeaten. That would be Seattle Slew in 1977.
If Justify is going to lose during this Triple Crown season, it would seem far more likely to happen in the Belmont Stakes on June 9 than in the Preakness. Some horses that ran deceptively well in the Derby were held out of the Preakness to get a full five-weeks’ rest for the Belmont. That rest period has been the winning Belmont formula in recent years.
The Preakness? Really good Derby winners rarely lose, and Justify came into the Derby as a really good horse and left looking even better after a dominating performance.
“Realistically, it’s Justify’s race to lose. Just that simple,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will have two horses lined up against Justify at Pimlico. “He’s the best horse. Not always the best horse wins in the Kentucky Derby, and this year the best horse won. To go into Baltimore and take him back on is definitely going to be a challenge. I’ll never be afraid, but I’m realistic enough to know he’ll be very difficult to beat. But you can’t mail it in. They run, and things happen.”
Justify was the sixth consecutive Derby favorite to win. Two (California Chrome and American Pharoah) are destined for the Hall of Fame. The other three (Orb, Nyquist, and Always Dreaming ) never won another race. Justify looks very much as though he will belong with the first group some day.
Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is going for Preakness win No. 7.
“That’s my favorite of the [Triple Crown] races, because it’s stress free,” Baffert said.
The stress is huge when you have the favorite in the Derby, and it’s off the charts when you have a horse going for the Triple Crown, as Baffert has done four times. That Triple Crown try is the most intense pressure in the sport.
For now, Baffert is enjoying himself. He knows he has the best horse — always a good place to be. And he knows there will be challenges.
Good Magic was second in the Derby and is back to try again.
“I really thought I was going to get there,” said Jose Ortiz, the brilliant, young jockey who rides Good Magic. “It felt great to be in the position I was in. My horse tried so hard.”
That is exactly the point. Good Magic did try really hard. And he gained zero ground on Justify in the final 200 yards.
The Preakness riding strategy will be interesting. Good Magic’s trainer, Chad Brown, said he wants the colt to be close from the start. If he tries Justify sooner than at Churchill Downs, Good Magic could pay the price in the stretch.
Quip appears to be the horse with the second-best speed behind Justify, a colt with enough early speed that he really could control this race from the front. Quip, however, is owned by Winstar Farm, the same farm that has a major interest in Justify. So, you have to think the connections will discuss a race scenario that does not include Quip and Justify battling with each other on the lead.
Baffert and assistant Jimmy Barnes were recently watching footage of the legendary Man o’ War on YouTube when they came upon the essence of Justify.
“The voice would come on,” Baffert said, “and the guy said, ‘The main essential of a good horse is speed, and the second greatest essential of a great horse is more speed.’ That’s basically what we saw on Derby Day, a horse just pouring it on. If he was a rocket, he’d be shedding his afterburners, just going on and on … .
“He was just unbelievable the way he just kept on running and just didn’t have any ‘Whoa’ in him at all. Then [jockey] Mike Smith had trouble pulling him up.
“It’s probably the hardest that he’s ever had to run, but I think that quality right there is going to help him in the Preakness. Not only does he have the talent, but he has the will to win. For him, what he’s done in such a short period – it will be his fifth race in 13 weeks – it’s just incredible how tough he is.”
Bigger, faster, stronger, tougher, better. That would be Justify.