Schmuck: Justify lives up to the billing and brightens an otherwise dismal Preakness Day

If ever the Preakness needed a great horse to chase the clouds away, it was on this strangely foggy Saturday afternoon.

If ever Maryland racing needed an upbeat narrative to counter the downbeat outlook that seems to hover over the future of the second jewel of the sport’s Triple Crown, it was the moment when Kentucky Derby winner Justify was rounding the final turn at Pimlico Race Course.

Justify kept everyone in suspense all the way to the finish line, but the bigger-than-life chestnut colt held off all late comers to give the announced crowd of 134,487 a chance to be at the center of Triple Crown history for the second time in four years.

It would have been nice if everyone had a clear view of all of it, but Maryland’s wacky weather provided a final twist at the end of a Preakness Week spent in a seemingly constant downpour. The rain finally relented and a heavy fog fell over the racetrack in the 2 hours leading up to the big race, which made it hard for anyone to follow the horses for more than a few hundred yards without a television monitor nearby.

Maybe the end justified the mean-spiritedness of Mother Nature, but the incessant rain over the past several days made the grass track too soggy to safely run all of the turf races scheduled for Black-Eyed Susan Day on Friday and the Preakness 143 celebration on Saturday. Four of the five scheduled turf races Saturday were moved to the dirt track, which led to dozens of scratches and two races that featured only four horses each.

Throw in the effects of such a heavy deluge on the aging grandstand and it’s no wonder that Stronach Group chief operating officer Tim Ritvo couldn’t hide his impatience with the facility when he met with reporters Saturday afternoon.

The uncertainty surrounding the Preakness and Pimlico is not a new story, of course, and little that Ritvo said should have surprised anyone. But he made it clearer than ever that the Stronach Group is not interested in investing significant money in a renovation of the old racetrack. In fact, he left the distinct impression that barring some dramatic infusion of local government funding to renovate Pimlico, Maryland’s signature sporting event is headed for Laurel Park.

Three hours later, Justify came out of the paddock and proceeded to write a new chapter in the storied history of the track that featured the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral and sent the likes of Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah to their date with destiny at The Belmont.

Earlier in the week, legendary trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas weighed in on the importance of keeping the Preakness at Pimlico because of its historical significance and current importance to the city of Baltimore.

They combined Saturday to provide an exclamation point when the Lukas-trained Bravazo made a late charge along with long shot Tenfold and came up just short in a heart-stopping finish that will only add to Justify’s legacy if he can do it once again in the 1½-mile marathon that awaits in Elmont, N.Y., three weeks hence.

Justify held off top contenders Good Magic and Audible two weeks ago at the front of a strong field at the Kentucky Derby. He dueled with Magic for the lead Saturday until the final stretch, when the colt gave way to Bravazo and Tenfold.

Now, race fans can look ahead at the Belmont two ways. Either Justify is just warming up and is good enough to hold off the fresh entries that await every Triple Crown candidate that shows up there, or the late close by two horses less heralded than his Derby competition is an indication that the final jewel’s extra five-sixteenths of a mile will undo him like it has so many others.

Whatever happens three weeks from now, Justify saved what could have been a thoroughly discouraging day in the uncertain life of Old Hilltop.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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