Preak­ness may mir­ror Derby in many ways

Weather pre­dicted to be wet, and Jus­tify likely to be the top horse again

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Dan Wolken

BAL­TI­MORE – Even dur­ing the 37year Triple Crown drought that tor­tured horse rac­ing un­til Amer­i­can Pharoah came along in 2015, roughly one-third of the horses that won the Ken­tucky Derby came back to win the Preak­ness.

There al­ways has been a rather sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for that trend: Un­less the Derby pro­duces some kind of fluky re­sult, the fastest horse on the first Satur­day in May is likely to re­main the fastest horse two weeks later.

So as the horse rac­ing world de­scends on Pim­lico this week for the mid­dle jewel of the Triple Crown, the ques­tion for the seven horses try­ing to chal­lenge Jus­tify is sim­ple: Why would this Preak­ness be any dif­fer­ent?

“The horse that wins the Derby is usu­ally the best horse,” said Bob Baf­fert, who will try for his sev­enth Preak­ness win Satur­day. “They’re in, like, top form and that’s what you want.”

No­body knows that bet­ter than Baf­fert, whose first four Ken­tucky Der-

by win­ners all won the Preak­ness — and did so in more im­pres­sive fash­ion, bounc­ing out of Churchill Downs fitter and sharper than they were be­fore.

There’s lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve that’s go­ing to change this year. Jus­tify faces three of the same horses he beat con­vinc­ingly two weeks ago and four new­com­ers who have yet to demon­strate the ap­ti­tude it will take to up­set him. Heck, even the weather at the Preak­ness looks as though it’s go­ing to produce the same wet track con­di­tions he skipped over in the Derby.

“It’s go­ing to be very tough to beat him,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who en­tered both Bravazo (20-1 on the morn­ing line) and Sport­ing Chance (30-1) but is re­al­is­tic about their chances. “He’s the best horse. It’s just that sim­ple. He’s do­ing well. I watched him all week, and he’s go­ing to be very, very hard to han­dle.”

Jus­tify was made the 1-2 fa­vorite on the morn­ing line Wed­nes­day and could eas­ily be bet down to some­thing like 1-5 on race day. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock to win, of course. A thou­sand things can hap­pen once they get out on the track, and even the great Sec­re­tariat had a bad day or two.

But on pa­per, it’s hard to come up with a com­pelling ar­gu­ment for any­one to beat him.

In fact, of the three Triple Crown races, the Preak­ness is usu­ally the one that plays clos­est to form. Un­like the Ken­tucky Derby with its 20-horse stam­pede, rac­ing luck and run­ning style aren’t much of a fac­tor here with a smaller field. Un­like the Bel­mont, which is run at a 11⁄ 2- mile dis­tance that many horses don’t have the stamina to han­dle, the Preak­ness is a much more for­giv­ing

13⁄ miles.


Though there’s a long his­tory of horses who didn’t per­form well in the Derby bounc­ing back and run­ning a huge race two weeks later, they’ll typ­i­cally need the Derby win­ner to take a step back or show some fa­tigue.

And given Baf­fert’s Preak­ness record, that’s some­thing you can’t count on with Jus­tify.

“I think train­ers’ records in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions is im­por­tant whether it’s a guy off a 60-day lay­off or run­ning back in two weeks,” said El­liott Walden, CEO and pres­i­dent of WinS­tar Farm, which owns Jus­tify in part­ner­ship with China Horse Club and oth­ers. “Bob’s record is very good run­ning back in two weeks, and that’s cer­tainly some­thing I have con­fi­dence in.”

Is there any crack in the ar­mor? Not re­ally.

Though Jus­tify did come out of the Derby with a slightly bruised heel, that prob­lem re­port­edly cleared up quickly and shouldn’t compromise his fit­ness level for this race. And while the Preak­ness will be Jus­tify’s fourth race in 91 days — a heavy work­load for a horse in the mod­ern era — he’s a big, strap­ping colt who hasn’t lost weight like some Derby win­ners do.

Based on the phys­i­cal signs, Lukas said it would be “wish­ful think­ing” to count on him re­gress­ing.

“I think he’s ev­ery bit as good as he was the week be­fore the Derby,” Lukas said. “I don’t think he’s gone to the well yet. I’d be more con­cerned about the Bel­mont than this one, per­son­ally.”

If some­one does beat Jus­tify, the most likely can­di­date is Good Magic, who ran his heart out in the Derby to be sec­ond. His trainer, Chad Brown, is hop­ing his horse han­dles the two-week turn­around bet­ter than Jus­tify and makes up the gap that way.

Quip, the third choice at 12-1, is more of an X fac­tor in the race be­cause he didn’t run in the Derby. But he has class and speed, and jockey Florent Ger­oux will likely send him to the lead out of the No. 1 post po­si­tion with Jus­tify set­tling in just off his flank.

Does Quip have the qual­ity to with­stand that kind of pres­sure all the way around? It seems un­likely.

Lukas might have the most in­trigu­ing of the long shots with Bravazo, who had a trou­bled trip in the Derby but fin­ished a good sixth and was one of the few run­ning hard at the end. With­out traf­fic trou­ble, he should move up in the Preak­ness and will be clos­ing late.

Still, un­less some­thing causes Jus­tify to regress from his Derby form, it’s hard to draw up a sce­nario where he isn’t go­ing to Bel­mont Park with a shot at the Triple Crown.

“This is my fa­vorite leg of the Triple Crown be­cause it’s a re­laxed at­mos­phere, ev­ery­one’s in the same barn so we can hang out with each other. The tension of the Derby is over,” Baf­fert said. “I love this place.”

He’ll prob­a­bly love it even more Satur­day night.


Trainer Bob Baf­fert walks Ken­tucky Derby win­ner Jus­tify through the Preak­ness barn on Wed­nes­day.

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