BALTIMORE — There was never any doubt about Justify’s talent. The only unknown about the big chestnut colt was how he would react when pushed to the limit. On Saturday, we found out.
Before then, Justify had shown only brilliance. In the fog and muck at Pimlico, he showed class under intense pressure in the 143rd Preakness Stakes. The undefeated star who had glided through his first four races showed a quality prized in the thoroughbred as much as speed: courage.
The 2-5 favorite went head to head with Good Magic until he put away the Derby runner-up in midstretch, then turned back a late move by 15-1 shot Bravazo for a half-length victory. Tenfold, at 26-1, was a neck farther back and another neck in front of a weary Good Magic, the 7-2 second choice. Next came Lone Sailor, Sporting Chance, Diamond King and Quip.
Bravazo was third before dropping back to fifth at the stretch call. He was moving fastest of all in the final 100 yards but ran out of ground.
“I wanted them to extend the race another 50 yards,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “A very good horse won the race. We kept him honest.”
Justify’s rider, Mike Smith, said he saw Bravazo coming 100 yards from the finish. “The wire was coming up,” he said, “and I felt pretty confident I had him at bay.”
The fractions — 23:11 seconds for a quarter-mile, 47:19 for a half-mile, 1:11.42 for 6 furlongs — were not particularly quick. However, when horses duel it can be more tiring than if one sets hot splits by itself.
The survivor of the pace battle was pretty spent, too.
“He got a little tired at the end, but he also was waiting on the competition,” Smith said. “He was kind of looking around and jumping around, but it was a good kind of tired. I’m hoping it was that kind of tired anyway, and I feel that he’ll move forward.”
Now it’s on to Belmont Park, where Justify can become the 13th Triple Crown winner on June 9 in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Bob Baffert had to pay with anxiety in a doubly historic day for him. The 65-year-old Hall of Famer won his seventh Preakness, tying the record of 19th century trainer R.W. Walden, and his 14th Triple Crown event, tying his old friend Lukas.
“It was a nail-biter,” Baffert said. “They put it to us. That was a good horse, Good Magic, and it was like they had their own private match race. Somebody had to give, and I’m glad it wasn’t us.”
There was a rumor before the race that Jose Ortiz would go for the lead on Good Magic. Trainer Chad Brown said that definitely was not his plan.
“No, I didn’t want the horse on the lead,” Brown said. “He took the worst of it being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. I’m pretty disappointed. I know this horse very well and he’s not a horse to be on the lead. No way. I wanted to sit off the pace and follow Justify around. And he’s following us.”
Despite miserable weather for the fifth consecutive day, the Preakness drew a crowd of 134,487, although saying they witnessed it would be a stretch. The fog was so thick that NBC race caller Larry Collmus was able to watch only “90 percent of the race,” and that was on the TV monitors, until the horses entered the stretch.
Justify ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.93 on a sloppy, sealed track. He paid $2.80 and earned $900,000 of the $1.5 million purse, raising his total to $2,998,900 for WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing.
Three years ago, Baffert guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978. The Belmont, a grueling marathon, would be Justify’s sixth race since he made his career debut Feb. 18. Too much?
“He has to show us, he has to come out of this race well and he’s got to be training really well,” Baffert said of what it will take to go to “The Test of the Champion.”
“Right now, I don’t see why not.”
What: Belmont Stakes
When: June 9
Where: Belmont Park
Last year: Favorite Irish War Cry set the early pace. Tapwrit and Gormley made their moves rounding the far turn. Tapwrit, saddled by Todd Pletcher, closed on Irish War Cry down the stretch and pulled clear to win by two lengths.
Tickets: Go to belmontstakes.come