Long after training hours the day before the 143rd Preakness Stakes-G1, Bob Baffert kicked around Pimlico Race Course. His horses ate hay or dozed in the stakes barn, his staffers attended to their duties, he’d done his interviews and was – for a Hall of Fame trainer who has made the Triple Crown his personal playground for the better part of 20 years – briefly alone without much purpose.
He chatted with fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas for a while, stepped in and out of the stakes barn to avoid intermittent rain that settled into the Baltimore area for what seemed like weeks and chit-chatted with various members of the press corps lingering around, digging for details or making up for lost time.
There was no entourage, not even his wife Jill and young son Bode, always by his side in the lead-up to racing’s biggest events. They were safe from the elements, tucked away at their hotel, while Baffert waited to film a segment for NBC’s broadcast the following day.
The wait for the interview didn’t really put Baffert on edge, at least on the outside. He was already there on the inside, knowing that just a few feet away was a colt destined to shine again on the big stage two weeks after winning the Kentucky Derby-G1 as the favorite. Baffert just needed the time to pass, Justify to break well and negotiate a clear trip, simple as that.
Days like this are when Baffert is less Baffert-esque. He’s still quick with a quip, sporting a sly grin and his trademark sunglasses. Yes, the shades, even as rain saturated Old Hilltop from the omnipresent gray skies above.
These are the moments that put Baffert on edge, or at least as on edge as the white-haired conditioner can be. He’s not an old-school worrier type, pacing the shedrow and constantly checking details ranging from the weather to how the track is playing.
Horses like American Pharoah, Silver Charm, Point Given, Real Quiet and now Justify help eliminate some of the worry, racking up victories in America’s most important races. They’ve been either workmanlike or dominating, but winners nonetheless, and the central figure in the narrative that is the Triple Crown for two decades is Baffert. The first of those 14 wins came in 1997, but still he worries.
“I always have to have a reason to fret. I have to fret. Nothing’s easy,” Baffert said that Friday morning, a few hours before the Black-Eyed Susan Day card nearly washed away in the rain. “That’s why when [Justify] hit the wire in the Derby I was like, relieved, that he did it, that he showed his stuff. Any other trainer would have been jumping up and down, I was like, ‘Whew, he’s a good horse, I didn’t mess it up and he got it done.’ ”
Justify indeed got it done in the Derby May 5 and two weeks later got it done in the Preakness, running his record to 5-for-5, adding a second jewel of the Triple Crown, giving Baffert his seventh Preakness and 14th overall classic victory. The figure put Baffert in a tie with Lukas, the man he used to be compared with and now is almost assuredly destined to overtake.
Justify’s victory in the Preakness was unlike any of Baffert’s others, and in stark contrast to just about any of the other 142. Officially, Baltimore received measurable rain for eight consecutive days leading up to the Preakness with 5.5 inches falling at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and local amounts of more than 8 inches. By Saturday morning, some 80 hours had passed since anyone in the area had seen the sun.
Then came the Preakness, with its 6:48 p.m. post time.
The rain eventually subsided – enough at least so the patrons outside weren’t completely saturated like they were two weeks prior in Louisville – but a thick fog rolled in, just in time for the great race’s preliminaries.
The gray cloud created the feeling of a mid-winter afternoon at Aqueduct – when the mist occasionally obscures any and all sight lines – and not early spring at Pimlico. Many of the 134,487 fans who turned out, either in the ground-floor boxes, glass-enclosed grandstand or the second-floor horsemen’s box area had no chance to see the eighth pole, never mind the starting gate for the 13⁄16-mile Preakness.
The view from the infield tent village, or upstairs in the announcer’s booth, stewards’ room and press box was no better.
Preakness 2018 will be remembered as the one where the fog rolled in and Justify and jockey Mike Smith rolled out, to a determined victory that set up another run at the Triple Crown for his trainer who holds the series in the highest regard.
“I knew we had the horse to do it,” Baffert said in the post-race press conference, after Justify won by a half-length over late-running Bravazo with Tenfold a neck back in third and champion Good Magic another neck back in fourth.
Racing for the partnership of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, Justify defeated seven rivals and the fog two weeks after defying the so-called Curse of Apollo to become the first Derby winner not to race at 2 since 1882.
“I knew we had it,” Baffert said after the Preakness. “He’s a beautiful horse and I’m just so proud of my team . . . It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of pressure, and we might not show it because we’ve been through this, but we hide it pretty well. Believe me, we’re all on pins and needles.”
Raining in Baltimore, Louisville
Preakness-goers fretting about the weather obviously didn’t experience the 2018 Derby as Churchill Downs got drenched, the race took place in a downpour and the track was a sloppy mess. None of that mattered to Justify, who became the sixth consecutive favorite to win the race.
Sent off at 5-2, the winner broke sharply from post seven in the congested field of 20, found a cruising spot in second just off Promises Fulfilled early. The leader blazed the first quarter-mile in :22.24 and put up a half in :45.77. Never more than a half-length off that quick pace, Justify galloped along like he was back home in California.
Baffert and his wife watched it unfold, and worried.
“Wow, man,” said Bob as the first fraction went up.
Next to him, Jill put it more bluntly, “Oh, too fast. Oh.”
Baffert found a little solace in the half-mile split. “Well, he slowed it down. It’s :46 and change. I think they slowed it down.”
Again, Jill found the truth. “No, that’s :45 and change.”
Baffert had one thought, “That’s not good,” and watched the pace develop.
“Wow, man, this poor little horse, he’s going to lay down,” Baffert told himself. “There’s no way. He’s going to lay down.”
Actually, the little horse everybody thought was the big horse – and isn’t little at all – kept answering the challenge. After 6 furlongs in 1:11.01, Justify took over from Promises Fulfilled and faced the Churchill Downs stretch after a mile in 1:37.35. Good Magic made a run, but couldn’t go with the winner who scored by 21⁄2 lengths in 2:04.20. Good Magic settled for second, a head in front of Audible, also racing for WinStar, China Horse Club, Head of Plains and Starlight, who rallied for third.
Afterward, Baffert – whose previous Derby wins came with Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem and American Pharoah – sounded like a fan.
“I was just in awe of the performance,” he said. “That’s the best Kentucky Derby-winning performance that I’ve brought up here. He just did it, he just put himself up there with the greats . . . Hey, I didn’t want to jinx myself, but we knew, I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today.”
And would have to do so again, in a different way, in the Preakness.
Before the Derby and the Preakness, Baffert talked about the importance of a clean start for Justify. The same could be said for every horse the man runs, especially among big fields in high-pressure situations.
The concerns definitely trace to Baffert’s roots in Quarter Horse racing and are a frequent go-to sound bite for him in the days leading up to a big race.
“We had a little game plan. Main thing, we got to get out of the gate. If not, we’re going to head out the gate – out the back gate,” Baffert joked about the Derby.
On Preakness Day, the crowd – and Baffert – caught a glimpse of what might come when his trainee Ax Man rolled to victory in the Sir Barton Stakes. Ax Man and Smith went to the front at the start, stayed a couple paths off the rail throughout and drew off to a 63⁄4-length victory going 11⁄16 miles.
Baffert watched the race on a television monitor from his customary spot in the paddock, liked what he saw from Patti and Hal Earnhardt III’s homebred colt and wore an expression that was as much relief as satisfaction walking to the winner’s circle.
“That’s exactly the trip I want,” Baffert said while thinking of Justify and the Preakness some 70 minutes later.
The break in the Preakness isn’t quite as crucial as in the Derby, with a cast of 20 charging for the first turn, but nobody told Justify. He and Smith came away cleanly from post seven in a field of eight, but were quickly engaged from the inside by Good Magic and Jose Ortiz.
The runner-up in the Kentucky Derby after a failed attempt to pass Justify from the outside, Good Magic tested Justify early out of the fog and through the stretch the first time as Justify twice leaped some ruts in the track left by a wheeled pedestrian walkway to the infield.
Justify and Good Magic hooked up and were side-by-side through a quarter-mile in :23.11. Around the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch, they passed a half-mile in :47.19. Good Magic poked a head in front after 6 furlongs in 1:11.42 and he and Justify were well clear of the chase pack led by Bravazo, Diamond King and Quip.
Like Baffert, Smith hoped for a bit more comfort on the lead and would have gladly set the pace himself or taken back and drafted off of Good Magic. Jose Ortiz wouldn’t let either happen.
“You guys couldn’t see it, but man he went,” Smith said of Good Magic’s jockey. “From the backside he went with his horse and was pushing me hard.”
In the moment, Smith talked himself through it. “Dude, are you serious?” he said in his mind. “All right, let’s go.”
Justify took the punch, and countered.
The match race continued around the far turn with Good Magic inside and working hard, Justify keeping the pressure on to the outside. The winner reclaimed the lead while several paths off the inside rail near the top of the stretch. Bravazo and Tenfold started to inch closer into the stretch and as Justify put away Good Magic, the new challengers surged inside the eighth pole.
Justify cleared inside the final sixteenth as Smith cracked him twice left-handed before gathering up his mount in the final strides to hold off Bravazo and Tenfold. Smith, who won his first Preakness in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou, said later he gathered up Justify in preparation for another leap at the tracks just before the finish line. The Hall of Fame jockey wasn’t about to take any chances with the $1.5 million purse of the Preakness in the balance.
“Those tracks were coming up again where he jumped the first time, and I didn’t want him to stick his feet in the ground and think about jumping again so I just sat back on him, held him together and yelled at him to get across the wire,” Smith said. “I knew someone was going to come flying late, which they did. At the sixteenth pole I kind of took a peek back and saw where they were and thought we were OK, just wanted to hold him together.”
Justify did not hurdle anything in the final yards, and won in 1:55.93 over a track officially labeled sloppy and sealed, a clocking that compares favorably to recent editions and topped only by California Chrome’s 1:54.84 since 2010.
Chad Brown, who trains Good Magic for e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and Stonestreet Stables, eschewed his usual custom of several weeks rest between starts and ran Good Magic back in two weeks while looking to repeat Cloud Computing’s win in the 2017 Preakness.
Brown didn’t like what he saw almost from the outset for Good Magic, who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1 and this spring’s Blue Grass Stakes-G2 after stalking the pace.
“I didn’t want the horse on the lead, I’m disappointed in the trip,” Brown said after walking through the paddock and talking with Ortiz. “The post didn’t help, we were inside the other horse the whole way, unfortunately our horse took the worst of it being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. He’s just not a horse that runs on the lead and I’m pretty disappointed.
“I know this horse very well and he’s not a horse to be on the lead, no way. You guys asked me all week what I want to do, it’s sit off the pace, follow the horse around the track. Now he’s following us around. The post really hurt. When the horse broke as well as he did and you’re inside the other horse, it doesn’t leave the rider with many choices unfortunately.”
Bravazo’s runner-up finish was a return to form that landed the son of Awesome Again in the winner’s circle for the Risen Star-G2 this winter at Fair Grounds. He finished off the board in his two races prior to the Preakness, including a sixth in the Kentucky Derby after a somewhat troubled trip that did not deter Lukas from taking a swing in Baltimore.
Lukas, a six-time Preakness winner, was full of praise for the winner.
“A very good horse won the race, a very good horse,” Lukas said. “We kept him honest like we said we would. Bob’s tough in these and if he gets the right horse, he’s really tough.”
The Right Horse
Bred in Kentucky, Justify represents breeders John Gunther and his daughter Tanya Gunther who spent $425,000 to buy 4-year-old broodmare prospect Magical Illusion at Keeneland January in 2005. Three times a winner for Bill Clifton and trainer Jim Bond, the daughter of Pulpit and the Baldski mare Voodoo Lily (a Grade 3 winner and producer of 11 winners) had placed in the Coaching Club American Oaks-G1.
Magical Illusion’s first foal, When I Dream, never raced. The second, Stage Magic, won three times, placed in four stakes for the Gunthers and trainer Helen Pitts – and in 2015 gave the world Justify after being bred to Scat Daddy. Sold by the Gunthers’ Glennwood Farm at Keeneland September, Justify brought $500,000 on a bid by China Horse Club and Maverick Racing. His ownership roster has branched in numerous directions since then and includes China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and SF Bloodstock with Starlight Racing and Head of Plains partners buying into minority shares of the horse’s racing rights.
Justify received his early training under Richard Budge at WinStar, then went to Rodolphe Brisset, who saddled Quip for WinStar in the Preakness, at Keeneland. From there, the future star went to Baffert in California, initially with the second string at Los Alamitos Race Course before moving to the main barn at Santa Anita Park in mid-January.
Baffert said after he breezed Justify for the first time at Santa Anita – 5 furlongs in 1:01.20 Jan. 29 – that he knew he was “live” for the classics. He still needed to get there, and after an easy maiden win Feb. 18 and an allowance score March 11, Baffert threw Justify into deeper water against Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby-G1 April 7. He won that, too, earning the favorite’s role for the Kentucky Derby.
“He came late from Kentucky to us and you can only go as fast as the horse will allow you to go,” said Baffert’s longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes after the Preakness. “He’s a big horse. He just needed time to grow. Five starts in and he’s won the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. That’s amazing.”
In Louisville, Baffert compared Justify to NBA star LeBron James and admitted, “You better win a championship with him.”
Like his boss, Barnes paid credit to the athlete.
“We get good horses, that’s the main thing,” he said. “We have a good staff and do a good job, but the horse is an awful lot of it. You’ve just got to manage them properly. He’s been good all along. What a lovely horse.”
A history-defying Kentucky Derby and a fog-filled Preakness in the books, Justify went to Belmont Park in search of one more step. Could he join the 12 others who became Triple Crown winners or would he become the 24th who missed a Belmont Stakes-G1 win while on the edge of true greatness?
Baffert has endured both, losing the Triple Crown in the final jewel with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem, before closing the deal with American Pharoah in 2015.
All that remained in the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont for Justify was training at Churchill Downs, where Baffert keeps his classic colts on the Triple Crown trail and of course, the ever-present waiting game.
“You’ve just got to wait it out man, it’s all we do,” the trainer said. “That’s what we do in this business. It’s like with [New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick, we met him last night and it was an honor. I’d met him before, a while ago, and I told him, ‘I know what you go through, except you’re on the sideline, you don’t have anybody talking to you.’ With us we’re here in the middle of everybody, everything, trying to stay focused.
“We have to worry about the horse showing up. I think he’ll show up, he should show up. That’s the most important thing to worry about.”
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