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Justify is the early favorite in the Preakness, but he's also far from a sure thing

The Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, is historically a less crowded affair, with fewer horses in the field and more money focused on the favorites. Much more.

Three years ago, after a win in the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah got 9-10 odds at the Preakness’ post time. Affirmed, another Triple Crown winner, was a 1-2 favorite in 1978. Secretariat won gamblers just 30 cents for every final dollar bet at Pimlico Race Course in 1973.

Of course, so would have a bay stallion named Riva Ridge the year before, and Disney hasn’t signed on for a major motion picture about his life. As a 2-year-old, Riva Ridge won five stakes races and an Eclipse Award. In 1972 came a wire-to-wire, 11-length victory in the Derby as the favorite. Two weeks later, heavy rains fell overnight in Baltimore, and Riva Ridge didn’t much like the mud. He finished fourth in a seven-horse Preakness field. An easy win in the Belmont Stakes only added to his what-could’ve-been mystique.

History has always preceded the arrival of the reigning Derby champion in Maryland, a well-worn reminder that there is no such thing as a sure thing, not for bettors. Justify is this year’s early Preakness favorite, undefeated in four races, the last a convincing win on May 5 at Churchill Downs. His 1-2 odds probably won’t get longer. But there are hard truths for those seeking (and seeing) easy money.

“Yes, [the field] can beat him,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has two Preakness entrants, said last week. “But it's going to be very difficult. But you have to look back down the years. Who would have thought Barbaro would have got beat? Who would have thought Fusaichi Pegasus would have got beat? Who would've thought that any of these horses that were heavily favored out of the Derby [would lose]? It's [Justify’s] race to lose. ... But you can't mail it in.”

Since Giacomo was made the third favorite for the 2005 Preakness — prudently, it should be noted, as he finished third behind favorite and eventual winner Afleet Alex — every Derby winner but two has entered the Preakness’ post time as the race favorite. The only exceptions: Mine That Bird (6.6-1 odds), the eventual runner-up in 2009 to favorite Rachel Alexandra, and I’ll Have Another (3.2-1), who upset Bodemeister in 2012.

Altogether, Derby winners over the past 20 years have fared well in the Triple Crown’s shortest race. Nine have won a second straight trophy, four have placed second, and two have finished third. Even the surprise winners have not yielded a gold mine for their backers; Oxbow is the longest of long shots to have won the Preakness in the past two decades, and he had 15.4-1 odds.

“When you feel like you really have the horse, you just don't want to mess it up, because you don't know if you'll ever be back again,” Justify trainer Bob Baffert said last week. “You don't know if you'll ever win. Every time I've won the Derby, I thought: 'Well, better enjoy it, because we'll never be up here again.' ”

That, Baffert acknowledged, is a lot of pressure. Routine helps. His team won’t do anything different this week. They know well enough that the most important thing they can do is “have a good time,” he said. “To me, the Preakness is a lot of fun.”

Winning helps, too. This will be the Hall of Famer’s fifth Preakness with a Derby winner. The previous four — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem and American Pharoah — all have left Pimlico with a shot at the Triple Crown. Perhaps it’s why Baffert joked that the only thing he had to watch out for was his waistline. “Don’t overdo it on the crab cakes,” he said with a chuckle.

Lukas has trained four Derby winners and five Preakness champions himself. But only one, 1999 Horse of the Year Charismatic, won both legs. Above all, he knows, a horse must be tough, tougher than they’ve ever been before. Or else that two-week turnaround is liable to “jump up and bite you,” he said.

“You can't have one of these what I call soft horses, lightweight horses, horses that need some management going into the Derby,” he said. “When you come out of the Derby, you've got to have a blue-collar, tough horse.”

No one can say yet whether Justify qualifies as such. What Lukas could say: Justify is fast and powerful and well conditioned. And “if you're going to bet on the fastest horse and the most powerful and the most probably [well] conditioned,” he explained, “you'd better bet on him.”

Double trouble

Four horses have taken both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness over the past decade, but even the upset winners haven't been long shots.

Year;Derby winner;Preakness winner and odds

2008;Big Brown;Big Brown (1-5)

2009;Mine That Bird;Rachel Alexandra (1.8-1)

2010;Super Saver;Lookin At Lucky (3-1)

2011;Animal Kingdom;Shackleford(12.60-1)

2012;I'll Have Another;I'll Have Another (3.2-1)

2013;Orb;Oxbow (15.4-1)

2014;California Chrome;California Chrome (1-2)

2015;American Pharoah;American Pharoah (9-10)

2016;Nyquist;Exaggerator (2.60-1)

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