The 2018 Preakness field of 8 horses is set and all are trying to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Elliott Walden flashed Bob Baffert a thumbs-up Wednesday afternoon as the announcement came that Justify would start the Preakness from the No. 7 post, just as he had when he won the Kentucky Derby in commanding fashion.
“He likes it,” said Walden, president and CEO of Justify’s co-owner, WinStar Farm. “But with an eight-horse field, I don’t think any post is bad.”
What Walden didn’t say at that moment, but what he and Baffert believe, is that if Justify runs his race Saturday, nothing else will matter. Not the post position, not the other horses in the field and not the sopping-wet forecast.
Pimlico oddsmaker Keith Feustle agreed, listing the Derby champion as a 1-2 favorite in the morning line for the Preakness.
“Ooh, man, talk about pressure,” Baffert said with a slight grin as he heard the odds.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s confidence is well-earned. His previous four Derby champions all won two weeks later in Baltimore. And Justify is coming off a commanding 2½-length victory over a muddy track at Churchill Downs.
He ruled in the rain in Kentucky, and a light drizzle greeted him Wednesday as he stepped off his van from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport at 3:48 p.m. Baffert walked to meet his fifth Derby winner, but Justify did not exit first.
“This is Sunny!” the trainer crowed as he led a golden pony to the Preakness barn ahead of the horse everyone waited to glimpse.
But the massive chestnut, almost 1,300 pounds of him, was not to be overshadowed once he emerged. “Ooh, he’s big,” several onlookers murmured.
As Baffert walked him around the shed row, Justify stopped to gaze at a pack of photographers with mild interest. He stood at his full height, and again, observers gasped at his imposing physique.
As he did with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, Baffert chose to put Justify in the middle of the Preakness barn rather than in Stall 40, the traditional home of the Derby winner.
“It seems to be that the horse isn’t able to relax because it’s right on the corner and you have lookie-loos all day long and they’re snapping the click of the cameras,” he said of his aversion to 40.
Justify will face a smaller-than-usual field of seven challengers as he tries to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. It’s the same size field American Pharoah beat three years ago, thin in part because Justify scared away many of his rivals.
But not Derby runner-up Good Magic, who will start from the No. 5 post and is listed as a 3-1 second choice in the morning line. His trainer, Chad Brown, won the Preakness last year with Cloud Computing.
“I’m fine with the draw,” said Brown, who won’t arrive in Baltimore until Friday. “We should be close early.”
Two other Derby horses will try to turn the tables on Justify — sixth-place finisher Bravazo and eighth-place finisher Lone Sailor.
Lone Sailor’s trainer, Tom Amoss, has said Justify does not appear vulnerable but that his horse ran well enough to deserve another chance. He’ll go off from the No. 2 post and sits as a 15-1 fourth choice.
Bravazo is one of two horses 82-year-old trainer D. Wayne Lukas will saddle for the Preakness. The 20-1 choice will start from the No. 8 post. Lukas’s other horse, Sporting Chance, will start from the No. 3 post and is listed as a 30-1 long shot.
If one of the pair pulls an upset, Lukas would tie the all-time record of seven Preakness wins, a mark Baffert could also reach if Justify wins.
Among the fresh horses challenging Justify is Arkansas Derby runner-up Quip, who like the Derby champion is owned by WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club. Quip will start from the No. 1 post, listed as a 12-1 third choice.
Though few trainers want the far inside post position, Walden said he was fine with it for WinStar’s other horse. “I’ve tended to do pretty well in math, and I know it’s the shortest way around there,” he said.
Diamond King, winner of the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park, will also take a shot at the Derby champion, starting from the No. 4 post and listed as a 30-1 long shot.
Finally, Tenfold, saddled by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, will start from the No. 6 post and is listed as a 20-1 choice in the morning line.
Rival trainers have acknowledged since the Derby that if Justify is on his game, he’s the favorite to deliver Baffert another Triple Crown.
“He’s the best horse. It’s that simple,” Lukas said. “I think the same horses that were up in front [in the Derby] will be there again. I hope to be a little closer with both of mine, but we may not be able to do much about it. The thing that makes Justify so tough is that he has the ability to dictate the race and make his own luck. Where some of us will have to have a little help, he has the ability to do it when he wants to.”
The weather will loom as a significant story until post time Saturday evening, even though Justify has already won twice on muddy tracks. Any element of chaos is unwelcome news for a dominant champion.
“I would prefer it not to be wet,” Walden said. “The good news is he’s run well in the mud. It’s a whole lot better than if he had a race in the mud he did not run well. It’s not a concern how he’s going to run so much as it’s another variable that we have to deal with.”
The driving rain on Derby day frayed Baffert’s nerves, and he said he won’t ask Justify to do much on the wet track at Pimlico either Thursday or Friday morning. But he generally downplayed the importance of the weather.
“He’s always been a superior horse,” Baffert said. “And the really good ones, they just seem to run on anything.”