Close finish at Preakness gives Justify's challengers confidence going into Belmont

Going into the 143rd Preakness on Saturday night at Pimlico Race Course, many were ready to annoint overwhelming favorite Justify as the sport’s next Triple Crown winner based on the horse’s dominant performance in the Kentucky Derby.

Coming out of Justify’s narrow win over longshots Bravazo and Tenfold, both of whom charged hard over the final portion of the 1 3/16-mile trek, it seems fitting that the 1½ mile Belmont Stakes could be — for lack of a better term — a horse race.

That’s how veteran trainer Steve Asmussen felt after Tenfold finished a neck behind Bravazo, who finished a half length behind Justify. Good Magic, the second favorite going in, faded after briefly holding the lead to finish fourth.

Asked if Justify was just a little better than the rest of the field, Asmussen smiled.

“Honestly? That race right there ain't going to scare nobody,” said Asmussen, whose horse came in as the longest shot in the eight-horse field at 25-1. "We think we have a nice horse that’s improving, and it gives us a lot of confidence moving forward, but you have to continue better or get out of the way.”

Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who saw longtime rival Bob Baffert pass him with his seventh Preakness victory to tie R. Wyndham Walden’s record and tie Lukas for overall Triple Crown wins with 14, looks at the leadup to New York a little differently.

“I don’t know about the confidence part. It seems like we’ve got more than one nice horse this year, like we all thought earlier on [this year],” said the 82-year-old Lukas, whose horse went out at 15-1. “The first four horses are pretty damn nice. I think you have to salute the winner. He beat everybody that showed up.

“What we’re finding out is that there’s a pretty nice set of 3-year-olds out there and I’m sure they’ll show up in the Belmont. We’re going to get a whole new look at it. We all ran over the same race track and he’s over there getting the black-eyed Susans and we’re here wondering what's happening next.”

Lukas felt a little like that Saturday as he tried to follow the race itself. After emerging from a dense fog and closing fast on Justify, Good Magic and Tenfold, Bravazo was suddenly in serious contention after going into the backstretch in fifth place, 7 lengths behind.

“I thought we had a shot at the eighth-pole because we were moving so, but the wire came up,” Lukas said. “You don’t see much coming out of the fog up there, but when I finally picked him up, I knew that [jockey] Luis [Saez] would be coming.I thought, ‘Here he comes, can he get up?’ and then I knew he couldn’t in the last two jumps. But he made it interesting.”

After a slow start that saw Tenfold running sixth after a quarter-mile and moving up only to fifth after a half-mile, Asmussen said, “I was concerned with where he was. 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 great position.”

When Tenfold emerged from the fog, Asmussen got a little more excited.

“When they came out of the fog, he was in the game,” Asmussen said.

That’s sort of how Asmussen feels headed to the Belmont, looking for Tenfold to play the role of Triple Crown spoiler.

“He’s a top class horse that’s getting better,” Asmussen said. “We’re three-quarters of a length away from where we want to be. Let’s figure out how to get it.”

Asked if he plans to run Tenfold at the Belmont, Asmussen’s eyes lit up.

“Hell yeah,” he said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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