All eyes on Justify

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Two weeks ago in Louisville the public saw what Bob Baffert noticed back in January.

Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, Baffert, the masses and most likely many more will watch again to see if Justify can move up another rung on his improbable ladder of success and join some of the greats on the list of Kentucky Derby winners who added the Preakness two weeks later.

Justify, undefeated in four starts and well drawn in post 7 in what figures to be a rain-soaked Preakness, is clearly the horse to beat. The fans know it, the bettors know it and rival horsemen in the race know it. Baffert knows it, too, and the six-time Preakness winner is confident without being over the top.

“I’ve had a lot of confidence in him ever since the first time we worked him at Santa Anita,” Baffert said Friday morning outside the stakes barn, waiting to film a piece for Saturday’s NBC telecast of the Preakness. “He showed what a truly gifted horse he was. What he’s done in a short period of time, it takes a special horse to do what he’s done.

“Here when you have a heavy favorite … you still have to go through it, he has to show up again. He should show up,” 

Baffert said his main concern – aside from his usual go-to of the break – is the pace of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.

Justify raced close to a fast early pace on a sloppy track in the Kentucky Derby, with a target, and wound up one of only two to race close around at the finish. Good Magic also raced fairly close and managed to finish second, 2 1/2 lengths behind the winner.

Where the early speed will come from in the Preakness isn’t entirely certain, although Quip from the rail most likely will be forwardly place along with either or both of trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ runners, Sporting Chance and Bravazo. Justify could also make the pace, just as the Baffert-trained American Pharoah did in 2015 when he took the initiative early and splashed to a 7-length win to set up what became his successful Triple Crown sweep.

“I knew that the Derby was mine to lose, but we were running with some really good horses, then the rain came,” Baffert said. “I always have to have a reason to fret. I have to fret. Nothing’s easy.

“That why when (Justify) hit the wire in the Derby I was like, relieved, he did it, he showed his stuff. Any other trainer would have been jumping up and down, I was like, ‘whew, he’s a good horse, I didn’t mess it up and he got it done.”

Justify is 1-2 on the morning line for the Preakness, with champion and Derby runner-up Good Magic the second choice at 3-1. The other six in the race are double-digit odds.

If all eight start when the gate opens at 6:48 p.m. Saturday it will be the smallest Preakness field since American Pharoah’s in 2015. The last time before that there were only eight starters in the Preakness was 2000, when Red Bullet upset Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

Baffert is well aware that upsets can occur, even when he sends out the best horse. That hasn’t happened to him yet in the Preakness, a race he’s won four times with Kentucky Derby winners (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem and American Pharoah) and twice more with eventual or past Eclipse Award winners (Point Given and Looking At Lucky).

So what’s the key element to Preakness success? That one’s easy for Baffert to surmise.

“We’re all in the same boat, we’re coming back quick, it’s muddy and the break is still so important. The main thing is you have a good horse, that’s the main ingredient.

“What Justify has done done since February is great. You have to be a superstar to do that. He’s like Pharoah, they’re superstars. Pharoah was like, ‘wow.’ This horse was, too. They’re superstars. They’re both different types of horses. What they have in common is they’re extremely fast, they both could win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. They’re just good horses.”