The comparisons were inevitable.
One of the most famous trainers in thoroughbred racing, Bob Baffert, brings a talented Kentucky Derby champion to the Preakness just three years after he ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought with another horse who seemed to float above the dirt.
It’s impossible to talk about Justify, the 1-2 favorite for Saturday’s 143rd Preakness, without bringing up American Pharoah.
Even the setting for Justify’s attempt — a Pimlico Race Course track that has been pounded by four consecutive days of rain — seems designed to evoke Pharoah’s Preakness run from three years ago, when he roared out of the mud and mist to win by seven lengths.
Everyone remembers his historic victory three weeks later at Belmont Park. But it was at the Preakness where American Pharoah stamped himself a great horse.
Can Justify do the same?
“They’re superior horses,” Baffert said, drawing the comparison. “They’re both quick and their mechanics are the same. They just glide over the ground.”
Justify is about 100 pounds heavier, hence Baffert terming him the LeBron James to American Pharoah’s Michael Jordan. “King Kong,” rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas called him on Friday morning.
No matter how you spin the metaphor, his talent has the racing world excited in way in a way it has not been since 2015.
“I think he’s a real star already,” said NBC race announcer and Bowie product Larry Collmus, who called the 2015 Triple Crown and Justify’s Derby victory. “As for reaching American Pharoah’s level, I think he absolutely could. He’s got the size, the name, the trainer, he’s undefeated.”
Collmus will never forget walking out to the roof at Pimlico on May 16, 2015, and watching the line of charcoal gray clouds creep above him as post time neared. With two minutes to go, the rain was so fierce he could not see the track.
“The only one who didn’t seem bothered at all was American Pharoah,” he said.
Justify seemed similarly unperturbed at the Derby, where he had to cope with a relentless downpour, an unusually talented field of 19 rivals and a bellowing crowd of 157,813. He handled the madness more impressively than Pharoah did in his Derby victory.
“He’s just got that big, powerful body, that big, long stride,” Baffert said. “He’s so efficient. He just does it easily, and I’m sure those other horses were thinking, ‘Dude, we can’t keep up with him!’ ”
The performance was all the more stunning because the big chestnut colt had run his maiden race just 76 days earlier. Talk centered on him slaying the dreaded “Curse of Apollo,” the 136-year streak in which no horse won the Derby without running as a 2-year-old.
But the curse talk almost undersold Justify’s remarkable progress. He existed far off the racing world’s radar last fall, when horses such as Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro vied for 2-year-old supremacy. Baffert didn’t lay eyes on him until the turn of the year.
Justify was not a born underdog like California Chrome. His father, the late Scat Daddy, was a terrific sire. Both Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm and Michael Wallace of the China Horse Club were struck by his rare combination of size and lightness of foot when they paid $500,000 for him at the September 2016 Keeneland sale.
“He was a beautiful horse,” Wallace recalled. “He’s a man amongst boys when he walks into the paddock now or on the track at Santa Anita or Churchill Downs. He’s one of those horses that no matter who you are, your eyes drag towards him.”
Justify was coming along quickly in March 2017 when he pulled a muscle during a 3/8-mile breeze, setting his training back 60 days, Walden said. He resumed work in the summer, and WinStar next sent him to trainer Rodolphe Brisset at Keeneland to give him a feel for the racetrack environment.
Walden still isn’t sure why he sent Justify to California. WinStar had traditionally placed more of its top prospects, including 2010 Derby champion Super Saver, with Todd Pletcher. But WinStar owner Kenny Troutt wanted to cultivate a more extensive relationship with Baffert. So he got Justify while Pletcher got Audible, who would finish third in the Derby.
And still, nothing much happened. The chestnut colt went to Los Alamitos instead of Baffert’s headquarters at Santa Anita. It wasn’t until mid-January that Justify finally seized his Hall of Fame trainer’s attention.
Baffert immediately saw what Walden and Wallace had at the Keenleand sale — a mountain of muscle mixed with a nimble mind and a stride that gulped the air.
The horse remained a secret to most when he finally entered the starting gate at Santa Anita on Feb.18. But Baffert had already told a few people that if everything broke right, he might have his next Derby champion on hand.
Justify won by 9 ½ lengths that day, and his 104 Beyer Speed Figure (a statistic that captures the relative quality of every performance) suddenly vaulted him onto lists of Derby contenders.
Jockey Mike Smith climbed aboard for the next race, an unremarkable 5-horse allowance at Santa Anita on March 11. He could not believe what he felt beneath him that day, the on-demand acceleration from such a massive, inexperienced horse. He won by 6 ½ lengths at what seemed like a jog.
When he ran away from the field in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby, Justify made himself the Derby favorite, Apollo or no Apollo.
As Baffert walked to the track after Justify won by 2 ½ lengths at Churchill Downs, he said the colt was already in a rarefied class, with American Pharoah and Arrogate, among all the champions he has trained. Walden, who trained two Derby runners-up and helped develop another one in Super Saver, felt similarly.
“We’ve had a lot of good horses at WinStar, won a lot of Grade-1 races,” he said. “But we haven’t had a horse like Justify.”
Walden draws added confidence from Baffert’s perfect 4-for-4 record when bringing Derby champions to Pimlico.
Baffert works his horses hard, figuring they’ll need the foundation of fitness should they make it to the Triple Crown series intact. His record in these races is unmatched.
The one shadow over Justify’s story is the heel bruise that left him struggling to place weight on his left hind leg the morning after the Derby. Baffert’s staff put a ¾ shoe on that foot to relieve pressure, and Justify resumed galloping without apparent difficulty last week at Churchill Downs.
“It’s something that is never good,” Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Jerry Bailey said of the bruise. “As a jockey, as a trainer, as an owner, you want to have everything go perfectly from one race to the next, and this is far from perfect. However, this is a common malady for horses, and knowing that, you have to trust the trainer who’s taking care of the horse.”
Baffert has repeatedly expressed confidence that the injury is behind Justify.
“He had that one day, but after that, he’s been really good on it. I put a full shoe back on it, and he went out there today and didn’t feel anything,” he said Thursday. “Those things, you just don’t know when they’re going to sneak up on you. But right now, I’m not really worried about it.”
The weather? The heel? The rematch with Derby runner-up Good Magic? If Justify is as good as American Pharoah, he’ll outrun them all.