There have been many comparisons drawn between American Pharoah and Justify in the two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Saturday’s 143rd Preakness.
Most of them have been raised with trainer Bob Baffert, who in 2015 helped American Pharoah become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
By Saturday night, there might also be similarities to the wet and wild conditions in which both horses won the Preakness.
Three years after 1-5 favorite American Pharoah won by 7 lengths on a Pimilco Race Course track that was turned into an equine slip-and-slide, Justify will go off as a 1-2 favorite in the eight-horse field.
It comes after the unbeaten 3-year-old, who didn’t race as a 2-year-old, won in equally adverse conditions at Churchill Downs.
Shortly after the horse arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday, Baffert joked that he might consult with a “good weatherman” about when he should work Justify out before the race.
“I need a window,” said Baffert, well aware of the unfavorable forecasts. “We’re all in the same boat.”
Though there’s seemingly been enough water this week to float an ark, Baffert doesn’t seem that concerned about the possibility of another wet and sloppy ride Saturday.
Asked whether the forecast makes him a little unsettled, Baffert said: “No, that’s something that you can’t control. The thing is, I think it just puts more pressure on the track [superintendent] to make sure it’s safe.”
Only 28, Chris Bosley started working in that position for the Maryland Jockey Club last month after spending the previous five years in the same job at Timonium, where his father, Chuck, retired after 35 years as the track’s maintenance superintendent.
“It’s not ideal track conditions, but we’re doing everything we can,” Bosley said outside his office Thursday as the rain came down. “We‘re taking floats out and trying to get it to seal, get tight underneath [the surface] so the horses aren’t running through as you say a slip-and-slide. It is what it is.”
To seal the track, which is made from a combination of sand, clay and silt, Bosley said, the floats, which weigh close to a ton, come out behind tractors each morning when the horses are not working out and after each race Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“As we’re dragging [the floats], they compress what we call the cushion — what the sand is and what the horses run on — and that makes it as tight as it can possibly get,” Bosley said. “It squeezes the water out and it runs down the banking of the track into the gutter.”
According to Bosley, the track has already received around 3 to 4 inches of rain this week.
“It’s holding as well as you can expect to in these type of conditions,” Bosley said. “People ask you with this weather, what’s the condition of the track. It’s sloppy, but sloppy can mean a lot of different things. You run the floats over and it’ll pack it down, and it will keep a good bottom to it. Everything is about the horses. You try to make it as fair and as safe as you possibly can.”
Baffert said at Wednesday’s draw that Justify is the kind of horse who “brings the track with him,” meaning he can run on any kind of surface. Given the conditions at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, it seems unlikely the surface Saturday will not have that big of an impact on the outcome.
The performance by Justify in this year’s Kentucky Derby, similar to that by American Pharoah three years ago at Pimlico, almost makes the term “mudder” seem obsolete.
“All the horses, they’ve all got to run over the same track, no matter what the conditions are,” Bosley said. “Usually the better horses, no matter what the condition is, usually end on top. Some horses take better to different track conditions than others, but the great ones can can run over any track condition and come out on top.”
Scott Blasi, the assistant trainer for 20-1 long shot Tenfold, said the horse’s sire, 2007 Preakness winner Curlin, ran well in the mud during his career. Good Magic, who will go out as the second favorite behind Justify, was also an offspring of Curlin.
“Curlin relished the mud,” Blasi said at Wednesday’s post-position draw. “He won a Breeders’ Cup Classic in it. I think a lot of his offspring have run well on sloppy tracks. I definitely think it plays into today’s racing and handicapping.”
Looking out through the grandstand window onto the wet track Thursday morning during the Alibi Breakfast, Quip trainer Rodolphe Brisset said the muddy surface looks worse than it really is. Though this is his first Preakness, Brisset took one of his fillies to Pimlico for the Black-Eyed Susan a couple of years ago.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Brisset, a former jockey in his native France. “It’s when it’s sealed right, it’s actually not that bad at all. The track is the same for everybody, We know that the Derby winner liked the mud, and we know he’s the one to beat. We’ll see what happens.”
In a national teleconference last week, six-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas said the conditions at Pimlico and Churchill Downs have become more similar in recent years, which bodes well for Justify if the forecast of rain holds for Saturday.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about the surface in my handicapping and whether a horse could handle it or not. It’s very, very similar. And I think a horse who could handle Churchill will probably handle Pimlico pretty good even if it’s dry or wet,” Lukas said.
Three years ago, after his horse Mr. Z seem to skid down the backstretch to go from a close second to a distant fifth behind American Pharoah, Lukas said he couldn’t think of many races he had experienced in more difficult conditions.
Asked whether he thought the conditions that day were unsafe for the horses — the fans had to exit the grandstand because of lightning — Lukas said, "Takes a hell of a storm to stop a horse race."