LOUISVILLE, KY. — Newly anointed Kentucky Derby champion Justify is shaping up as an overwhelming favorite for the May 19 Preakness, with many of his top rivals uncertain to be in Baltimore for the second jewel of the Triple Crown series.
Bob Baffert said the strapping chestnut colt came out of his commanding Derby win in excellent form. In fact, thoroughbred racing's newest star seemed to enjoy pulling his white-haired trainer around Sunday morning as they both came out of Barn 33 at Churchill Downs to pose for photographs.
"If he stays healthy and he looks good, I think he's just getting it now," Baffert said when asked about Justify's Preakness chances. "He knows he's a stud. He's so beautiful. He's got the body. It looks like it was nothing for him."
Jockey Mike Smith said Justify had plenty left in his tank over the last eighth of a mile of the Derby. The battle was actually to keep him from overexerting himself when the effort was not required.
It's unclear how strong a field Justify will face when he comes to Pimlico Race Course.
Derby runner-up Good Magic, who made a strong move on the lead late in the race, is a maybe for the Preakness. Trainer Chad Brown said he'll first take his horse back to New York to recuperate.
"I don't know," Brown said. "The horse is sound. He looks good, but I just have to observe him. … I want to get the horse back home and evaluate his energy level. We've just got to go from there."
Brown won the Preakness last year with Cloud Computing, and Good Magic's father, Curlin, won the race in 2007.
But Justify presents a daunting obstacle, even for a horse as tested as Good Magic.
"Yesterday, I think the horse that was supposed to win, won," Brown said. "I'm very impressed. This was his first try at a mile and a quarter, too, with not a ton of experience. When you watched the race unfold, it was just tough to envision a scenario in which that horse could've gotten beat yesterday, really from any post.
"When we come off the turn, I thought we could reel him in, maybe, because those were strong fractions for a horse on his first try going that long. But he just found more. So hats off to him and Bob."
Trainer Todd Pletcher has never liked the two-week turnaround between the first two legs of the Triple Crown, so none of his four Derby entrants, including third-place finisher Audible, seem likely for the Preakness.
Others once thought to have a shot at Justify, including California star Bolt d'Oro and Irish-trained Mendelssohn, are headed home with no plans to run in Baltimore.
Fifth-place Derby finisher My Boy Jack is headed back to California and more likely to return east for the Belmont Stakes than the Preakness. Fourth-place finisher Instilled Regard will take 30 days to refresh himself at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.
Seventh-place finisher Hofburg is also likely to wait for the Belmont after he closed with a fury in the Derby.
Venerable trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who's won the Preakness six times, is likely to show up with sixth-place Derby finisher Bravazo and another horse, Sporting Chance.
Quip, runner-up in the Arkansas Derby, skipped the Derby and is a candidate to run fresh in the Preakness. But like Justify, he's owned by WinStar Farm, so that challenge is no sure thing.
Diamond King, winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park, is likely to be in the field.
But if Justify shows up in close to top form, none of those horses are going to scare Baffert the way the Derby field did Saturday.
The Preakness is generally the most fun leg of the Triple Crown for the Hall of Fame trainer, who's won it six times. Gone is the excruciating pressure of the Derby, where unproven horses carry so many expectations. And talk of a potential Triple Crown has yet to pick up steam.
"Everybody's sort of chilling out," Baffert said. "It's so low-key."
Justify will stay at Churchill Downs until the beginning of Preakness week. The charter flight from Kentucky to Baltimore is generally that Tuesday, though Baffert said he might arrive the day after the horse, on Wednesday.
That seems to speak well for Justify's chances to handle the two-week turnaround between the Derby and the Preakness.
"He was a little tired, but when those horses came to him, he wanted to take off again," said Baffert, who has brought four Derby winners to the Preakness and won each time. He has six Preakness wins overall. "I don't know if he's just strong or Mike is getting too old to pull him up. But it was an awesome performance."
Given his emphatic victory, undefeated record and obvious physical gifts, the questions about Justify as a potential Triple Crown successor to American Pharoah have already begun.
Elliott Walden, president and CEO of the Derby champion's part owner, WinStar Farm, said such talk is premature. "If Justify's meant to win the Triple Crown, he'll win the Preakness," Walden said. "And nobody will be able to beat him."
He was generally not in the mood to look ahead, even though he has the chance to tie Hall of Fame trainer Robert Wyndham "R.W." Walden for most Preakness wins at seven. Walden did it between 1875 and 1888.
Instead, Baffert wanted to relish Justify's career-defining win over the Kentucky mud, a performance that amazingly came less than three months after the big, red horse made his first career start.
"We saw a gear there that we hadn't seen yet," Baffert said.
He marveled at the colt's sheer size, 1,268 pounds of "muscle on muscle." American Pharoah was about 100 pounds lighter.
"He's one of those big old fullbacks," Baffert said. "Man, he's beautiful."