Triple Crown interest was Justified

Triple Crown interest was Justified

May 22, 2018 3:06 AM
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Yes, Kentucky Derby winner Justify remained undefeated and kept his hopes alive for a Triple Crown sweep by winning the 143rd running of the Preakness on Saturday. But, it was not easy, not by a longshot.

First, Justify had to deal with Pimlico’s extremely sloppy racing surface, accompanied by heavy fog and a spirited pace duel forced by Good Magic through more than a mile. Then, with the finish line for this 1-3/16 mile classic in sight, he had to dig down deep to hold off fast closing Bravazo and Tenfold to score a narrow victory at 40 cents on the dollar.

Although Good Magic pushed Justify right from the start, his trainer Chad Brown was unhappy with his colt’s involvement in the speed duel. Said Brown: “I didn’t want my horse on the lead and didn’t like being inside of Justify the whole way. I don’t think being in front is best for this horse; but, to his credit, he did try hard and didn’t give up.”

Having finished second to Justify in the Kentucky Derby on May 5, Good Magic clearly is a very good colt. But as I saw the race, he simply could not stay with Justify when the chips were down.

Holding a slight lead heading into the stretch, Good Magic began to falter ever so slightly while Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith called on Justify’s immense reserves to open up a bit more than a length reaching the final furlong pole. Make no mistake – Justify needed that last burst of energy to stay clear of Good Magic and hold off Bravazo and Tenfold.

 “This was the hardest race he’s ever had,” Smith said after pulling up on the backstretch. “It was a nail-biter.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert agreed: “It certainly was a courageous performance … It was like a match race out there. They sure put it to us and somebody had to give. I’m just glad it wasn’t us.”

Baffert’s relief after the finish was palpable as he quickly tried to put Justify’s perfomance in perspective: “To handle all that pressure and keep on running – well, he’s just a great horse.”

Credit also should go to Bravazo, who at 15-1 rebounded from a troubled sixth place finish in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby with a performance that stamps him as a legitimate Grade-1 colt.

Not only did Bravazo stay in reasonable contact with the front running pair through more than a mile, he finished strongly, just failing to catch Justify at the wire. After his effort, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas began to salivate at the prospect of running Bravazo in the 1-1/2 mile Belmont Stakes on June 9.

“I liked what I saw.” Lukas said. “I liked it a lot. But,” he continued, “a very good horse won this race – a very good horse. Yet, we did run at him and kept him honest just like we said we would. Now we’ll see what’s going to happen in the next one. Yes, we’re definitely going to the Belmont.”

As for Tenfold, who finished a good third at 26-1 rallying with Bravazo, trainer Steve Asmussen also said he will be heading to the Belmont Stakes. Yet, Asmussen privately hinted he could choose to wait for the historic Travers stakes at Saratoga in August. After all, the Preakness was only Tenfold’s fourth career start and Asmussen knows he has an improving son of Curlin headed in the right direction. Curlin, by the way, was a two-time Horse of the Year who won the 2007 Preakness and finished second in that year’s Belmont.

Getting back to Justify’s performance, which only earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure – the lowest of his five-race career – I nevertheless agree with Baffert that the stone cold number undervalues the overall quality of his effort.

Not many 3-year-olds in recent years could have handled such a contentious duel for more than a mile and then show the grit needed to actually win the race. Yet, given Justify’s narrow victory, a few key questions are now on the blackboard:

• Can this colt recover his energy for the next and longest Triple Crown race?

• Might Saturday’s strenuous effort send him to the sidelines?

• Or, might the way he reached into his reserves actually help him gain some strength? (Occasionally, a top quality young racehorse can reach a new level of performance after being pushed to his apparent limit.)

• Also, won’t the good colt Audible be in a good position to upset the Belmont, give he skipped the Preakness after finishing third in the Kentucky Derby?

While the actual Belmont field will not be known until early June, America’s best trainer will now have to closely monitor Justify’s physical condition to see exactly what the colt can bring to the Belmont starting gate. Stay tuned!

Added Notes: In a pair of sprints at Pimlico on Saturday, the 3-year-old Mitole earned a 104 Beyer Figure while 4-year-old Switzerland earned a 102. Meanwhile, Baffert’s lightly raced 3-year-old Ax Man won a 1-1/16 mile stakes to earn a Figure that was two points higher than Justify’s Preakness!