“Uh oh,” the Hall of Fame trainer muttered as he attempted to peer through the fog on a small television monitor in the paddock at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.
At that moment, Baffert had every reason to think his horse had given too much. In his fifth race in 90 days, the Kentucky Derby champion had fought off his top rival, Good Magic, in a virtual match race over the slick Pimlico mud. But here they came, two fresher challengers.
Baffert fell silent as he watched the charge to the wire. Then he released an exultant bellow as he saw Justify hold on by a half length and win the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“I wasn’t liking it down the backside,” Baffert said later, after wrapping his wife, Jill, in a relieved bear hug. “I was like, well, he’s not running there, and they’re going to take their big swing. But luckily, this is what makes horse racing so great.
“These great horses, they just define themselves when they get in that situation, and today, he just showed not only is he a big, beautiful, gorgeous horse, but he is all racehorse, and that’s what it took to win today.”
All week, an eager racing public had drawn comparisons between Justify and American Pharoah, who’d won the second leg of his 2015 Triple Crown over a similarly muddy track in Baltimore.
But this Preakness victory was a tense fight, more evocative of Baffert’s first, with Silver Charm, in 1997.
With his seventh Preakness victory, Baffert moved into a tie for the all-time record with 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden. He also tied D. Wayne Lukas for the most Triple Crown victories with 14. That one carried extra weight, because Lukas was the pinnacle to which Baffert aspired when he broke into thoroughbred training in the 1990s.
It was fitting that Lukas’s horse, Bravazo, was the challenger who almost caught Justify at the wire.
“A very good horse won the race, a very good horse,” the 82-year-old Lukas said. “We ran at him. We kept him honest just like we said we would. Bob’s tough in these and if he gets the right horse, he’s really tough. But, kudos to him, and we’ll see what happens in the next one.”
As the eight Preakness horses approached the starting gate in a horror-movie fog that cloaked Pimlico, Baffert said Justify needed to “leave like his hair’s on fire.”
He got the sharp break he wanted, despite the treacherous mud that had built up after a week of pounding rain.
Jockey Mike Smith quickly moved the Derby champion to the lead, just outside of Derby runner-up Good Magic, who remained beside him for most of the race. As they charged around the far turn, almost impossible to see through the mist, it seemed they might pull away from the rest of the field.
But both horses tired from the fight. Smith said that at the 3/8 pole, he felt he had put Good Magic away and eased up slightly because he thought he had a comfortable lead on Bravazo and third-place finisher Tenfold.
He acknowledged the charging horses drew closer than he intended at the wire.
Good Magic’s trainer, Chad Brown, was disappointed with the shape of the race, saying he never wanted his horse fighting for the early lead.
“Obviously, I entered my horse in the race because I thought there was a chance that [Justify] could be beaten and we could win the race,” he said. “But it just wasn't a good fit. I would have liked to see a different scenario where maybe we were just off the pace a little bit and not being pressed on the fence the whole way.”
Justify paid $2.80 on a $2 bet to win, $2.80 on a $2 bet to place and $2.60 on a $2 bet to show. Bravazo paid $7.60 and $4.80. Tenfold paid $6.80.
Despite the rain and fog, the 14-race card drew a crowd of 134,487, third largest in Preakness history, and generated a betting handle of $93,655,128, also the third largest ever.
Though he ranked among the heaviest recent Preakness favorites — 2-5 at post time — Justify’s quest to take the second leg of the Triple Crown carried several notes of uncertainty.
Would the big chestnut colt be disturbed by a tender heel that bothered him the morning after the Kentucky Derby?
Would he finally take a step back, or even sideways, after a meteoric rise to the top of his sport?
Instead, Justify added another chapter to the story that began when Baffert first saw him work out in January. He was an unknown at that point, with less than four months to go until the Triple Crown series. But Baffert sensed in his gut that he had another champion, akin to American Pharoah.
A “freaky horse,” he called him.
Justify, who cost $500,000 as a yearling, has also proved to be an enormous winning bet for a thoroughly modern partnership featuring Kentucky-based WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club and several late investors including former Johns Hopkins lacrosse player Sol Kumin. This was the second Preakness win for Kumin, a Boston-based hedge fund manager, following Exaggerator in 2016.
Baffert has always said the key to making history as a trainer is being entrusted with historically great horses. That was certainly the case here.
In a dizzying 90-day rush, Justify has rolled from his maiden victory to seizing the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
It takes a remarkable talent to pull off such an unprecedented feat, and he is that — 1,270 pounds of muscle on muscle combined with a sprinter’s quickness and an adaptable mind.
We won’t know for three weeks if he has enough fuel left in his tank to do what American Pharoah did three years ago. NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said his superior quality will prevent us from seeing vulnerability until he’s truly asked to reach deep, as he might be over the 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park.
Surely, some challengers will look at his tired Preakness finish and see a horse ready to be taken.
Smith, however, said any assumptions about Justify’s vulnerability are misguided. He compared the Preakness victory to American Pharoah’s difficult fight in winning the Derby.
“Pharoah was all out, hanging on to win the Derby, and look what he went on to do,” the 52-year-old jockey said.
But that’s mostly a conversation for tomorrow. Today, Justify is the undisputed king of his 3-year-old class and a horse Baffert rates among the best three — with American Pharoah and Arrogate — he has trained in his Hall of Fame career.
He said all week that Justify was primed for another big effort, despite the questions that arose when he had difficulty putting pressure on his left hind leg the morning after the Derby. He was diagnosed with a heel bruise and resumed galloping four days later without apparent discomfort.
But the injury cast some uncertainty on a Preakness that was otherwise an easier test than the Derby, with a shorter distance and a smaller, less talented field.
That it required such a fight reminded us why the Triple Crown is an elusive achievement.
“They put it to us,” Baffert said. “They made us earn it. Somebody had to give, and I’m glad it wasn’t us.”