BALTIMORE, MD – A thick fog ensconced the far turn and most of the front stretch, leaving all viewers completely in the dark for several seconds. Suddenly through the mist emerged the all-white silks of Mike Smith aboard the terrific Justify, and in a jolt, the racing world was viewing a mad dash for the ages. In the final steps, Justify crossed the finish line to maintain his perfect record and capture the 143rd running of the Grade 1, $1,500,000 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
Breaking from post 7 as the prohibitive 2-5 favorite, the reigning Kentucky Derby champion strode strongly for the lead, but two posts farther inward, his top rival, Good Magic, refused to yield and applied consistent pressure along his inside. The 1-2 finishers from two weeks ago dueled strongly through the first turn and down the backstretch, setting splits of :23.11, :47.19, and 1:11.42 along the way. The pair picked up the pace heading into the far turn, at which point it became anyone’s guess as to which horse was doing what. For several tense seconds that seemed to last hours, every eyeball was glued to the blanched apparatus blanketing the far turn, anxious for the sight of something, anything. Like Poseidon emerging from the clouds aboard Pegasus, Smith and Justify appeared on the lead with Good Magic trailing along the rail by about a 1/2-length, but two new contenders soon emerged. Longshots Bravazo and Tenfold were charging hard from their mid-pack positions with a full head of steam and Justify within their sights. A frantic four-way finish seemed likely, but in the shadow of the wire, Justify was able to prove himself the best once again, crossing with a 1/2-length lead in a final time of 1:55.93 for the 1 3/16-mile event over a sloppy (sealed) main track.
“It was a nail-biter,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “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. I’m so happy that we got it done. He’s just a great horse, to handle all that pressure and keep on running. He had to really work for it and I’m happy for the horse and Mike and all the connections that we pulled it out. They ran fast; I’ve never had one run that fast here. It took a lot out of me, but I’m just glad … everybody came to see a good horse race. It was a great horse race. Good Magic, I tip my hat to him. He made us really work. He’s a really good horse.”
For Smith, it was his second Preakness score following his 1993 triumph aboard Prairie Bayou. The Hall of Fame rider has also finished second twice and third four times.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said after winning the event for owners WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing. “It’s a dream come true, to be honest with you. It’s been 25 years since I was blessed to win my first one, which was here, and to go into it with Bob and (his wife) Jill and the whole crew … I’m just so blessed to be riding for these people right now. I’m on cloud nine.”
His counterpart, Chad Brown, was not as delighted with what he saw from Good Magic and jockey Jose Ortiz.
“No, I didn’t want the horse on the lead,” Brown said. “I’m disappointed with the trip. The post didn’t help. We were inside the whole way. Unfortunately, our horse took the worst of it, being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. He’s just not a horse that runs on the lead, so I’m pretty disappointed. He didn’t give up. I know this horse very well and he’s not a horse to be on the lead. No way. You guys asked me all week what I wanted to do – sit off the pace and follow (Justify) around the track. And he’s following us around.
“Obviously, I entered my horse in the race because I thought there was a chance that (Justify) could be beaten and we could win the race,” Brown continued. “But it just wasn’t a good fit. I would have liked to see a different scenario where maybe we were just off the pace a little bit and not being pressed on the fence the whole way. I’m disappointed.”
A photo finish was needed to determine second through fourth. Bravazo was ultimately found to be in front by a neck over Tenfold, with Good Magic another neck back in fourth.
“He broke very nice,” said jockey Luis Saez of his mount, Bravazo. “When we came to the 3/8 pole, Justify and Good Magic took off on us. Because my horse doesn’t have a quick turn of foot, it took me time to get him going. He was coming and coming down the stretch, and I thought we were going to catch Justify.”
Tenfold’s only other stakes attempt came in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, where he finished fifth but only missed second by a length. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, was very encouraged by his young colt’s continued development and stated that he would be taking him to the Belmont Stakes for another shot at Justify.
“Honestly, you saw them go by the first time, and I was concerned with where he was,” Asmussen said. “He was a little farther back than I thought he would be. He was pretty wide around the first turn. You see them down the backside, and you know he got in a great position into the second. When they came out of the fog, he was in the game. I’d say he got beat 3/4 of a length for all of it. He’s a top-class horse who is getting better. We were 3/4 of a length away from where we want to be, let’s figure out how to get it.”
Lone Sailor was also driving late but couldn’t quite get up in time and took fifth.
“He got beat 2 1/2 lengths, but I don’t know anything else,” said his trainer, Tom Amoss. “I know we went by the grandstand last but fairly close, closer than last time. I know I broke better. But after that, I can’t tell you much…. Look, Justify was favored. We were 2 1/2 lengths from Justify today, which is a moral victory. Unfortunately, we weren’t better than fifth. But I don’t know the details of the race.”
Much farther back (8 3/4 lengths, to be exact), Sporting Chance took sixth ahead of Diamond King, while Quip, owned by much of the same conglomerate as Justify, failed to fire and completed the order of finish for the eight-horse field.
“The horse seemed to come back fine,” said Quip’s rider Florent Geroux. “At the 1/2-mile pole, he just stopped.”
Justify’s win improved his spotless record to 5-5-0-0 and boosted his career bankroll to $2,998,000. The 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy will have three weeks to rest, recuperate, and reengage before taking on several of his Kentucky Derby foes in the 1 1/2-mile Grade 1 Belmont Stakes on June 9, his shot at becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner.
“He got a little tired,” Smith said. “This is the hardest race that he’s had, but he was also waiting on competition. It was awful loud out there and the track’s pretty narrow and he was kind of looking and jumping tracks and doing a few things, but it was a good kind of tired. It was that kind of tired I’m hoping, anyway, and I feel like he’ll move forward.”
Justify returned $2.80 to win, $2.60 to place, and $2.60 to show. Bravazo brought back $7.60 to place and $4.80 to show, while Tenfold paid $6.80 to show.