Horse racing never fails to disappoint.
At the most unexpected times, something can happen that energizes what looks on paper to be a very clear and straightforward race. The result of the 143rd Preakness Stakes was not surprising: Justify won and heads to the Belmont Stakes in three weeks with a chance at history. How the race was run, however, was absolutely fascinating.
The 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby is usually the most complex race of the season, but this year’s eight-horse Preakness trumped the Derby from an analyzation standpoint. Here are my thoughts, notes, and analysis of the 143rd Preakness Stakes.
1st: Justify – The Kentucky Derby showed that this horse has the talent of a champion. The Preakness showed that this horse has the heart of a champion. Even though this race’s early fractions were slower compared to the Kentucky Derby, Justify had a quality horse breathing down his neck the entire way around the track. The setup reminded me so much of the 2015 Travers Stakes when a quality horse named Frosted pushed the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to his limits. Just like Pharoah, Justify turned away his speedy challenger, but unlike Pharoah, Justify was able to still hold off the late-running challengers and win.
Let’s not kid ourselves; Justify was incredibly fortunate to win this race because Bravazo (yes, Bravazo) nearly ran him down. In fact, two jumps past the wire, Bravazo did run him down and went right on by. Justify received a 97 Beyer for the race, and while that’s still a good number, it was his first under 100 and was also one of the slowest speed figures to ever win the Preakness. If you had told me before the race that Justify was going to run a 97 Beyer, I would have told you that he was going to lose.
Don’t get me wrong, what Justify did in the Preakness was courageous. I felt after the Travers that American Pharoah ran a fantastic race, and I feel that way about Justify here, but the fact is that Bravazo was really unlucky to lose. Many may feel that I’m not giving Bravazo credit, but I am a huge Bravazo fan and there is not a bigger fan of his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, in the country. Bravazo and the 2013 Preakness winner, the Lukas-trained Oxbow, were both bred on a very similar line, and Oxbow was one of my all-time favorites. Heck, I’ve followed every step that Bravazo has taken since his debut maiden race. All I’m saying, though, is that while Bravazo is a solid and improving horse, he is not a monster. He’s not even in the Top 5 right now as far as this division is concerned. Justify won the Preakness because the quality of horses making a closing run at him was sup-par. That statement may upset people, but it is a stone-cold fact.
Now, on to the Triple Crown! Will he do it? At this point, it depends. Many pundits will say things like this over the next three weeks: “If he almost got caught at the Preakness distance, then there is no way he can do it at the longer Belmont.” That is not entirely true. The way that Justify ran in the Kentucky Derby, he could have won a 2-mile race. He was not slowing down. The Preakness dynamics, though, were totally different. Having a quality horse like Good Magic at his throat the entire race took a lot out of him. He was very brave to put away Good Magic and continue on for victory. The dynamics of the Belmont will be different than the first two Triple Crown races. There is no doubt that he is going to be a tired horse after running at Belmont, but if he is not challenged up front, he could cruise around the oval and blow the field away.
It is becoming clear that Justify is heavily affected by the pace, something that did not effect American Pharoah other than in the Travers. American Pharoah showed the ability to run his own race each time and let his competitors do what they wanted. If 24- and 48-second opening fractions put him on the lead, then that was ok. If it put him in a position where he was rating behind other speed, then that was ok, too. At first, I thought that Justify was that same type, but now, I’m not sure. He sat way too close to Promises Fulfilled in the Kentucky Derby, and then he got hooked up in a speed duel at Pimlico.
There is no doubt in my mind that he is talented enough to win the Belmont in three weeks, but the pace dynamics of the race will likely tell the story. Without knowing the field at this moment, it is very difficult to predict what might happen.
2nd: Bravazo – What an amazing training job by D. Wayne Lukas. This horse was considered a joke after his craziness in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, but he rebounded with a solid run in the Kentucky Derby, then came within a 1/2-length of winning the Preakness. He had a confusing trip, and what makes it difficult to analyze is that we really have no idea what happened on the far turn, thanks to all of the fog. At one point, Bravazo was in third, then Tenfold passed him on the turn. It looked like Bravazo was done, and when we first saw the horses emerge down the stretch, he wasn’t even in the picture. Then, with a sudden burst, Bravazo was flying down the lane and making up ground in a massive way. Without knowing where the wire was, many in the crowd began to panic, thinking that there was no way Justify could hold him off, but the wire came just in time. Bravazo was ahead of Justify within two strides after the finish, which makes him a very unlucky loser.
Because of the heavy fog, we will never know why he backed up and then re-rallied. That will remain a mystery, but we do know that D. Wayne has a horse that he can run in every big stakes race this year from here on out. He has proved his worth in a major way and will now head to Belmont, where you have to think that he will have a shot.
3rd: Tenfold – You have to give credit to trainer Steve Asmussen for entering this horse in the race and having him ready to roll off of just a so-so fifth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby last time out. This horse progressed nicely at Oaklawn Park leading up the Arkansas Derby, but he showed a whole new level of talent with his third place effort in the Preakness. After sitting about five lengths off the lead early in the race he made a bold move on the turn, and looked to be the main challenger to Justify as they disappeared into the fog. Once they emerged again he still looked to be making a move on the leaders, and continued a slow and steady grind as he passed Good Magic late to move into second before getting nipped at the wire by Bravazo. Here is your obvious statement of the year: You better keep an eye on this runner. With only four races under his belt he showed a ton of ability in this race, and will only get better and better from here on out.
4th: Good Magic – What a race from this horse. He absolutely laid it all on the line and showed that he is a world-class animal, going toe-to-toe with Justify and never flinched until deep in the stretch. It takes a monster to do something like that. The son of Curlin broke sharply, at which point his jockey, Jose Ortiz, decided to make this into a match race almost immediately. As the top two began to make the far turn, you could tell that Justify was not going to be able to simply dispose of Good Magic like he did with Promises Fulfilled in the Kentucky Derby. The race was on, and though he tired in the end Good Magic ran way too well to finish fourth.
As for the comments from trainer Chad Brown after the race, in which he was critical of jockey Jose Ortiz, I have to say that I agree with Brown. While he probably shouldn’t have publicly bashed his jockey, I do echo his thoughts. Many people are saying that the front-running tactic was Good Magic’s only chance to win and that he had to take it to Justify. That is completely crazy. His only chance to win was to get into a duel all the way around the track with a horse twice his size, a horse more talented than him, and whose natural game is to be on the lead while Good Magic’s is to stalk the pace? I’m sorry, but that is pure insanity. His only chance to win was to sit off of Justify a bit, then put the pressure on him from the outside when turning for him.
Sure, in this scenario, another horse would have had to do the dirty work, and I fully agree that without Good Magic pressing him, Justify likely would have had things his own way and galloped. However, what if Justify was just a tired horse Saturday? Let’s flip the script: what if Bravazo was the one pressing Justify all the way around the track, and Good Magic was the one flying home late? Under that scenario, I think that Good Magic would have won. That was his only chance.
While that scenario was not likely to happen, with a different ride, Good Magic could have been a clear second. Isn’t that enough to be upset with the jockey? His ride cost Good Magic two placings in the Preakness. I know that if I owned Good Magic, this would have been enough for me to be very upset. While Ortiz’s aggressive tactics were bold and made the race WAY more exciting, I don’t believe that doing so was in the best interest of the horse’s chances. Ortiz would probably agree, but I’ll give the kid credit. He’s got balls.
5th: Lone Sailor – This horse is going to continually get better and will likely have a big race with his name on it this summer. I’m not sure if he will ever be good enough to beat the big dogs in this division because this crop is really good, but trainer Tom Amoss can spot him anywhere without being embarrassed. He did his thing – drop to the back and make one run – and was coming hard at the end, and he probably ran too well to finish fifth. Keep an eye on him going forward.
6th: Sporting Chance – The “other Lukas horse” failed to get the trip that he needed, which was close to the front. He had to check just a bit while racing between a couple of runners, then was shuffled back to second-to-last down the backside. From that point on, he never had much of a chance, and he had no rally down the stretch, either. At this point, who knows what they will, or should, do with this crazy horse next. Perhaps a brief freshening and turn back in distance will suit him best.
7th: Diamond King – What was his purpose in the race? He had one shot: go to the front and hope to hold on for as long as he could. Instead, he said to hell with it pretty much right out of the gate. They’ll likely give him a class drop while cutting him back in distance for his next race.
8th: Quip – He had a bit of a weird beginning, then was asked to rate behind the early speed. He had no chance of making any impact once that happened because he needs to be more forwardly-place. He was chasing all the way around the track, and then literally disappeared when the rest of the field came down the stretch. He probably just needs to find a much softer spot for his next start.
One final thought on the champ: while we may or may not see him win the Triple Crown in three weeks, I KNOW that we won’t see another Justify, maybe ever. To win these two races, and the way in which he’s won them, in such a compressed amount of time, adds up to one of the most amazing things that you will ever see in this sport.