BALTIMORE — Hail to the crown prince.
A crowd of approximately 200, half of them media, hung out in a sprinkling rain, waiting for the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner to arrive Wednesday afternoon at Pimlico. His original ETA was 1:30, but the flight from Louisville was delayed, and Justify didn’t emerge from a horse trailer until 3:50.
Trainer Bob Baffert led the flashy chestnut colt with the white blaze across a path of drenched wood chips and into the stakes barn. After Baffert, and then his assistant, Jimmy Barnes, led Justify around the shed row for 20 minutes, he was bedded down in stall 40, the traditional spot for the Derby winner.
The morning after the Derby, Justify’s left hind foot was tender because he had bruised his heel on the sloppy track. Baffert said the foot was reshod with a full shoe after Justify trained with a “three-quarter” shoe to alleviate pressure on the bruised area. Justify galloped strongly for a week at Churchill Downs, showing no ill effects.
“A lot of horses burn their heels on a track like that, and their feet get tender,” Baffert said. “But it’s all behind us.”
Justify was pulling around Baffert and Barnes on Wednesday, and Baffert held out his arms and said, “He’s wearing me out. The flight went pretty smooth, and the horse was full of energy when he got off the plane.”
The connections of the seven horses who will face Justify on Saturday know they’re up against a beast. D. Wayne Lukas, 82, has trained six Preakness winners. Few expect his seventh will come from 20-1 shot Bravazo or 30-1 Sporting Chance.
Before the 2015 Derby, Lukas predicted a Triple Crown for American Pharoah. He’ll be surprised if Justify doesn’t become the 13th thoroughbred immortal.
“I think this horse has a great chance; I wish I had him,” Lukas said. “There’s no horse out there that can stop him on this run. He’s going to run well in the Preakness. He’s going to get a mile and a half in the Belmont.
“It’s his Triple Crown to lose.”
Elliott Walden is the president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify as well as his challenger Quip. Justify is unusually tall, and Walden said he weighs about 1,280 pounds. The man who trained 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop believes that size matters.
“He’s a big, strong horse, and that plays in your favor,” Walden said. “So he’s got a little more in reserve than a lot of horses.”
Before the Derby, Justify’s doubters focused on three potential problem areas. He didn’t race as a 2-year-old, had never faced pace pressure, and had run only three times. Oddly, those perceived negatives may have turned into positives. He probably has more juice left than he would have if he had gone through a strenuous campaign.
“A lot of horses get sucked up with the run to the Derby,” Walden said. “By the time you get there, you’ve gone pretty hard.”
As if mud-loving Justify needs another edge, it’s almost certain the track will be wet. There’s a 90-percent possibility of rain Saturday, and Justify is 2-for-2 in mud and slop. Lone Sailor and Sporting Chance are his only rivals with wins on an off track.
“I don’t see anything that makes me think Justify isn’t going to run a big race,” Baffert said. “Not only does he have the talent, but he has the will to win. What he’s done in such a short time — this will be his fifth race in 13 weeks — it’s incredible how tough he is.”