BALTIMORE — One of the perverse charms of thoroughbred racing is its uncertainty. Track conditions often play a major factor, as they will in Saturday’s 143rd Preakness Stakes. There’s a 95-percent likelihood of overnight rain, and it’s expected to continue until 4 p.m., so Pimlico’s main track should be a sea of muck.
How messy will it get, and will sloppy turn to muddy, and if it does, how can you tell? And what if the rain stops at 4 and the track starts drying out?
“I see the forecast,” Bob Baffert said. “I just quit watching it.”
When you have the odds-on favorite who is 2-for-2 on wet tracks, weather is less of a concern. Baffert trains Justify, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, and if Mike Smith sends him to the early lead, will anyone go with him?
“Nobody knows,” Baffert said. “When it’s muddy like that, nobody knows.”
Maybe Quip, or Sporting Chance? If Justify is on his game, it shouldn’t matter. Baffert is confident his latest superstar will handle any conditions. “I think he just has to stay the way he is,” he said. “He’s quick, fast and light on his feet. He’s so beautiful. He looks like a giant quarter horse.”
He was asked to compare Justify to his 2015 Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah. He said Justify is 16.3 hands tall (about 65 inches) at the shoulder and weighs 1,270 pounds, about 100 more than Pharoah did.
“Justify is about as tall as Pharoah, and just as muscular,” Baffert said. “He’s like Pharoah. They are superstars. What they have in common is they are extremely fast.’’
Baffert recently watched an old newsreel featuring the great Man o’ War. “The announcer said, ‘The main essential of a great horse is speed and the second biggest essential of a great horse is more speed.’ That’s what we saw on Derby Day, a horse pouring it on. If he was a rocket, he would have been shedding his afterburners.”
Nerves always frazzle Baffert before big races, with the break his main focus. He figures if Justify gets off to a good start, all will be well. Yet strange things happen on the racetrack, so Baffert will be “on pins and needles” until the gates open.
Justify is 1-2 on the morning line, so contrarian handicappers, looking for a score and a massive ego rush, feel honor bound to try to beat him. The problem is, if he doesn’t win, who will? It’s very hard to make a case for a win bet on longshots Bravazo, Sporting Chance, Diamond King, Lone Sailor and Tenfold.
Derby runner-up Good Magic, the 3-1 second choice, never seriously challenged Justify. Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown won his Preakness debut last year with Cloud Computing. Brown admits he’s basically taking a shot while trying to make up the 2½-length Derby deficit.
“There’s still the opportunity to close the gap if our horse moves forward and Justify regresses,” Brown said. “We have our work cut out for us, but our horse is doing well.”
Quip, a quick 12-1 shot breaking from the rail, has his backers along with connections to Justify. Quip’s trainer, Rodolphe Brisset, tutored Justify last year at WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify and Quip. The one thing Elliott Walden, WinStar’s president and CEO, doesn’t want to see is Quip and Justify going head to head early. “I don’t think that would be in Quip’s best interest,” Walden said, “considering Justify can go and keep on going.”
But if the WinStar horses are dueling at the sixteenth pole, that will be fine with Walden.