Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 20, 2018

From Out Of The Fog, Justify Has Just Enough

For many horse racing fans attendance at one of the three events comprising the American Triple Crown is a bucket list item, a trip that is looked forward to with great anticipation, producing memories that remain crystal clear in one’s mind many years after that particular Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont has been run. With that in mind one couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone in the crowd of 134,487 at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday who had chosen this year to make such a once in a lifetime trip to the Preakness Stakes.

While that number was down slightly from last year’s record of more than 140,000, it was still the third largest crowd ever for the Triple Crown’s second jewel. But what the many thousands got for their paid admission was a day beset first by pouring rain and then by a dense fog that rolled in as post time for the day’s main event drew near. Veteran announcer Larry Colmus, given the task of calling the race for NBC’s coverage, had to rely on watching television monitors rather than peering through binoculars. But even the network’s cameras, with their wide aperture that can turn night into day well beyond the limits of the human eye, could not fully pierce the murk. Meanwhile those in the grandstands could only guess at what might be happening as the horses went around the first turn and disappeared, as if racing into a cloud.

The soggy conditions also reminded everyone in attendance of the sad condition of the facility known as Old Hilltop. Water dripped from the roof of the grandstand down onto a concourse below, and some ceiling tiles were reported to have fallen as well. The Stronach Group owns both Pimlico, in northwest Baltimore, and Laurel Park, which is situated midway between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Laurel has live racing 159 days a year; Pimlico just 12. History and tradition aside, the management of Stronach, a gambling and horse racing giant, has made plain its preference to move the Preakness twenty miles south to a track that it considers better situated and one into which it has poured more than $30 million for recent improvements. Stronach has committed to have next year’s Preakness, the 144th running of this mile and three-sixteenths race at Pimlico, but after that all bets are off.

If Old Hilltop’s days are numbered, then surely this year’s race will go down as the strangest in the history of the Preakness at Pimlico, thanks to the meteorological nightmare that descended on Baltimore. But while those in attendance might not have been able to see much of the race, and the announcer was challenged to make the right call, a field of eight still raced around the antique oval in mud the consistency of peanut butter, a sloppy track that mirrored the conditions two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs.

The favorite, as always at the Preakness, was the Kentucky Derby winner. This year that meant Justify was sent off at better than even money, while Derby runner-up Good Magic was the logical second choice. Breaking from the seven post, jockey Mike Smith quickly urged Justify into an early lead, but trainer Chad Brown had clearly told Jose Ortiz aboard Good Magic, not to let the favorite get too far in front. The punters’ second choice moved up and matched Justify stride for stride as the field raced down the front stretch for the first time.

Fans packed into the grandstands turned their attention to the nearest television as the horses came to the first turn and vanished into the fog. What they could not witness in person was a two-horse duel that quickly took on the feel of a match race, with Justify and Good Magic side by side and three lengths clear of Bravazo, who was running in third. Halfway down the back stretch Good Magic put a head in front, and one wondered whether the slight left rear hoof injury that Justify suffered in the Derby might be enough to allow the challenger to turn the tables.

On the far turn the horses became little more than shadows moving through the mist, even to the TV cameras. But as they turned for home the field at last emerged from the thickest fog, and as they did so it was Justify who began his move, edging away from Good Magic, first by half a length and then by one. But this would not be a reprise of the Derby, where Justify pulled away in the final furlong. On Saturday Good Magic gamely hung on, and in the final yards Bravazo and Tenfold, the longest shot in the field, both came charging down the middle of the lane, closing the gap with the leader. At the wire the former had closed to within half a length, with the latter a head further behind. Still, if the margin was smaller the result was the same as at Churchill Downs – the big Bob Baffert trained 3-year-old, under the able handling of Smith, had won the day.

For the 36th time a horse has laid claim to the first two legs of the Triple Crown. But only twelve of the first thirty-five managed to complete the sweep, the most recent being American Pharoah three years ago. Like Justify, Pharoah came out of Baffert’s barn, but unlike this year’s claimant, he won the middle leg of the Triple Crown in dominating fashion after a sudden deluge during the post parade turned Pimlico muddy. Justify’s performance Saturday is unlikely to scare other contenders away from Belmont Park three weeks hence. There he will have to fend off both new shooters as well as Derby horses whose trainers chose to skip the Preakness while running the longest distance he will ever race.

If Justify comes up short in the Belmont, analysts will point to the severity of the task to which he has been set – a lightly raced horse asked to run three times in just five weeks. They will point to the difficult conditions at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico and suggest that the mud and the muck took too much out of the young colt. There will be disappointment in the horse racing world, but there will be no shame for Justify and his connections for trying and failing. But if he should prevail then Justify will forever be remembered as one of the great thoroughbreds of all time, and his margin of victory in any of the three races will be forgotten. Horse racing fans will see the answer for themselves on the second Saturday in June, assuming of course there is no fog on Long Island that day.

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