BALTIMORE — When expectations are so high that even winning causes temporary disappointment, it might be time for some introspection and reevaluation. Such was the immediate aftermath of Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico.
Justify remained unbeaten when he ran a really good horse into defeat and held off the rally of two rather undistinguished horses who had combined to win just one stakes race. His final time (1:55.93) for the mile-and-3/16ths race equated to a Beyer Speed Figure of just 97, the first time in his five-race career he had been below the magic 100 mark.
So is the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner not really as good as he seemed when he was winning his first four starts by 21 ½ lengths? Was he so tired at the end of the Preakness as his trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith said he was that he is not going to be at his best for the June 9 Belmont Stakes, where he will attempt to win the Triple Crown?
Or is Justify's record, 90 days from first start until his Preakness win, so historic as to render any other consideration moot? What the colt just did had never happened before. And they have been running these Triple Crown races for close to 150 years.
After attending supersonic fractions in the Derby, Justify should have been caught from behind in the Derby. None of the other 19 horses got close to him. After battling for more than a mile with 2-year-old champion Good Magic in the Preakness, on another sloppy track, visibility so bad in the fog that it took Smith some time to realize which horse was next to him, it would not have been a shock if Justify got caught late. Watch thousands of races with that circumstance and that is usually the outcome. It got close, really close, but Justify was still there, a winner again.
"They tested his fitness," Smith said. "They went on him early and he kept pushing on me and pushing on me to see if they could wear me out, I'm sure. Again, blessed to be on a horse with this much talent."
Baffert and Smith were making comparisons to American Pharoah's 2015 Derby win when the eventual Triple Crown winner was all-out in the first really tough race of his career. That got him so fit he went on to dominate the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"This is a race that he's going to get fit off of," Smith said hopefully. "That was by far his hardest race."
Truth is nobody knows yet. How the colt looks and feels and trains and ultimately runs in the Belmont will tell.
Bravazo, who was second in the Preakness, and Tenfold, who was third, will be back to try Justify in the Belmont Stakes. Good Magic is out of the series, the mile-and-half just too far as his trainer Chad Brown said after the Derby. Hofburg, who ran a deceptively good race in the Derby, passed the Preakness and is being pointed for the Belmont.
It is unclear how many will run against Justify at Belmont Park because there are some unusual ownership twists. Audible ran a solid third in the Derby and passed the Preakness for trainer Todd Pletcher. He would seem a natural for the Belmont until you realize his ownership group is the same as Justify's. Do the owners really want to try to beat their horse out of a Triple Crown? Not likely.
Regardless of how tired Justify was at the end of the Preakness — and he was clearly tired — he is a massive horse who holds his weight, always eats everything in front of him and may very well be able to recover. Also, there is very real chance that Justify would not get an early challenge in the Belmont and be able to cruise on the lead like American Pharoah. If that happens and it could, Justify would be very difficult to catch.
"I think the Belmont will be easier on him, the way it's set up," Baffert said.
One thing is certain. Baffert loves this picture of a racehorse, this massive chestnut with incredible speed. And he will do right by him
"I would love to put a western saddle on him and ride him in the Rose Parade if they would let me," Baffert said. "He's just so beautiful."
Maybe someday. First the Belmont Stakes.