Clear Path at Pimlico

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The fog rolled in at Pimlico late in the afternoon Saturday, just as the rain let up and in time for the second jewel of the Triple Crown, and Justify rolled out to another victory that puts him on the doorstep of history.

Justify ran his record to 5-for-5 in the foggy slugfest known as the 143rd Preakness Stakes Saturday, adding the Baltimore classic to his resume that already included a dominating victory two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby. He now stands to take a run at a Triple Crown sweep, accomplished three years ago by American Pharoah after an agonizing 37-year drought.

Justify won a four-way photo over the late-running duo of Bravazo and Tenfold with familiar rival Good Magic, who he sparred with in Louisville and for much of the 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness, under Hall of Famer Mike Smith. Bob Baffert saddled Justify for his large ownership group and collected the seventh Preakness victory in his own Hall of Fame career.

The victory in front of 134,487 was marked by Justify’s toughness and resilience battling Good Magic and most likely by the third-largest Preakness crowd in history and millions more watching at home or via simulcast for what they couldn’t see.

Baffert said he could barely see anything, watching the race on a television monitor from Pimlico’s indoor paddock with his wife Jill and son Bode. He saw the action from the top of the lane fairly well, watched Smith go left handed and knew Justify would need to dig down more than he had in his previous four starts to hold off the late charges. Justify held on by a half-length from Bravazo, who was a neck in front of Tenfold, who was a neck clear of Good Magic.

“He’s a superior horse,” Baffert said on his way to the post-race press conference after posing for photos under the infield cupola. “It takes a really good horse. We’ve seen horses win the first two but what he’s done in just five starts is incredible. That takes like an American Pharoah talent to do it.”

Baffert trained American Pharoah to a sweep in 2015 and he compared Justify’s victory in the Preakness to his Triple Crown winner’s hard-fought win in the Kentucky Derby over Firing Line and Dortmund. Justify had won his first four starts by 9 1/2, 6 1/2, 3 and 2 1/2 lengths.

“American Pharoah, his Derby was like this Preakness,” Baffert said. “He had to work at it, he came into the Preakness and just showed us what he was. Today it was sort of the same, he had to gut it out. But it’s good for these types of horses, that was the first time he had to lay it down and he came through.”

Justify won over the track officially labeled sloppy and sealed in 1:55.93. The super-saturated surface, pounded by moisture from Thursday through early afternoon Saturday, produced quick times for some of the 13 dirt races on the card and Justify’s Preakness compares favorably to recent editions and is only topped by California Chrome’s 1:54.84 since 2010.

Smith, winning his second Preakness and first since Prairie Bayou way back in 1993, and the other seven riders saw it all unfold.

Good Magic, who chased Justify from the outside in the Kentucky Derby, broke sharp from post 5 under Jose Ortiz. Justify also broke well, as he did in the Derby, from post 7 and those two led cut through the fog past the stands the first time just ahead of Bravazo three wide.

Good Magic and Justify raced as a tandem around the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch, turning the Preakness into a match race through the opening quarter-mile in :23.11 and the half in :47.19. Good Magic stuck his head in front past 6 furlongs in 1:11.42 and the two were 4 lengths clear of the chase group led by Bravazo, Diamond King and the retreating Quip.

Smith called on Justify into the lane and they inched clear of Good Magic, the two racing several paths off the inside rail as Bravazo and Tenfold loomed a threat. Justify cleared inside the sixteenth pole, Smith cracked him twice left handed before gathering up the big chestnut in the final strides to hold off Bravazo and Tenfold.

“I knew someone was going to come flying late, which they did,” Smith said. “At the sixteenth pole I kind of took a peek back and saw where they were and thought we were ok, just wanted to hold him together.”

Smith said his biggest concern in deep stretch wasn’t so much the opposition but the path worn away by a portable walkway for fans to cross from the clubhouse to the infield village. Justify jumped the path near the finish post the first time past, doing his best impression of Dayjur in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Belmont Park, and Smith didn’t want him to go airborne again with the money on the line.

“Those tracks were coming up again where he jumped the first time, and I didn’t want him to stick his feet in the ground and think about jumping again so I just sat back on him, held him together and yelled at him to get across the wire,” Smith said.

Chad Brown, who trains Good Magic for e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and Stonestreet, was attempting to turn the tables on Justify after the Derby and also win his second straight Preakness following Cloud Computing’s victory in 2017.

He didn’t like what he saw almost from the start for Good Magic, who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and this spring’s Blue Grass Stakes after stalking the pace.

“I didn’t want the horse on the lead, I’m disappointed in the trip,” Brown said after walking through the paddock with Ortiz. “The post didn’t help, we were inside the other horse 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 and I’m pretty disappointed.

“I know this horse very well and he’s not a horse to be on the lead, no way. You guys asked me all week what I want to do, it’s sit off the pace, follow the horse around the track. Now he’s following us around. The post really hurt. When the horse broke as well as he did and you’re inside the other horse, it doesn’t leave the rider with many choices unfortunately.”

On the flip side, Baffert loved the way the race unfolded at least from what he could see.

Baffert won the race prior to the Preakness – the $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes for 3-year-olds – with Patti and Hal Earnhardt III’s Ax Man. Smith rode the homebred son of Misremembered, keeping him a few paths off the rail and cruising to a 6 3/4-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile event.

“That’s exactly the trip I want,” Baffert said after finishing up an interview with a group of reporters.

The trip worked out and representatives of Justify’s large ownership group of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing overflowed from the winner’s stand accepting replica versions of the Woodlawn Vase.

The group and their colt will head to New York next for a run at the Triple Crown, something Baffert has done four times in his career. The horse to go to the Belmont Stakes undefeated with the Triple Crown on the line was Smarty Jones in 2004 and he finished second. Seattle Slew pulled off the feat in 1977, running his record to 9-for-9 in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

Several of Justify’s beaten rivals from the Kentucky Derby – Audible, Hofburg, Vino Rosso, Solomini and Free Drop Billy – along with Bravazo and Tenfold from the Preakness and new shooters Blended Citizen and Gronkowski might show up June 9 at Belmont to give him a test.

“It’s such a relief, when you have a horse like this to win the first two and look forward the Triple Crown,” Baffert said. “There’s a reason why he’s undefeated. He knows where the wire is, we needed an extra five yards from him today and we got it.”