BALTIMORE — Even during the 37-year Triple Crown drought that tortured horse racing until American Pharoah came along in 2015, roughly one-third of the horses that won the Kentucky Derby came back to win the Preakness.
There always has been a rather simple explanation for that trend: Unless the Derby produces some kind of fluky result, the fastest horse on the first Saturday in May is likely to remain the fastest horse two weeks later.
So as the horse racing world descends on Pimlico this week for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the question for the seven horses trying to challenge Justify is simple: Why would this Preakness be any different?
“The horse that wins the Derby is usually the best horse,” said Bob Baffert, who will try for his seventh Preakness win Saturday. “They’re in, like, top form, and that’s what you want.”
Nobody knows that better than Baffert, whose first four Kentucky Derby winners all won the Preakness.
There’s little reason to believe that’s going to change this year, as Justify faces three of the same horses he beat convincingly two weeks ago and four newcomers who have yet to demonstrate the aptitude it will take to upset him. Heck, even the weather at the Preakness looks like it’s going to produce the same wet track conditions he skipped over in the Derby.
“It’s going to be very tough to beat him,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who entered both Bravazo (20-1) and Sporting Chance (30-1) but is realistic about their chances. “He’s the best horse. It’s just that simple. He’s doing well. I watched him all week, and he’s going to be very, very hard to handle.”
Justify was made the 1-2 favorite on the morning line Wednesday and could easily be bet down to something like 1-5 on race day. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock to win, of course. A thousand things can happen once they get out on the track, and even the great Secretariat had a bad day or two.
But on paper, it’s hard to come up with a compelling argument for anyone to beat him.
In fact, out of the three Triple Crown races, the Preakness is usually the one that plays closest to form. Unlike the Kentucky Derby with its 20-horse stampede, racing luck and running style isn’t much of a factor here with a smaller field.
Though there’s a long history of horses who didn’t perform well in the Derby bouncing back and running a huge race two weeks later, they’ll typically need the Derby winner to take a step back or show some fatigue.
And given Baffert’s Preakness record, that’s something you can’t count on with Justify.
“I think trainers’ records in certain situations is important whether it’s a guy off a 60-day layoff or running back in two weeks,” said Elliott Walden, the CEO and president of WinStar Farm, which owns Justify in partnership with China Horse Club and others. “Bob’s record is very good running back in two weeks and that’s certainly something I have confidence in.”
Is there any crack in the armor? Not really.
Though Justify did come out of the Derby with a slightly bruised heel, that problem reportedly cleared up quickly and shouldn’t compromise his fitness level for this race. And while the Preakness will be Justify’s fourth race in 91 days, he is a big, strapping colt who hasn’t lost weight like some Derby winners do.
Based on the physical signs, Lukas said it would be “wishful thinking” to count on him regressing.
“I think he’s every bit as good as he was the week before the Derby,” Lukas said. “I don’t think he’s gone to the well yet. I’d be more concerned about the Belmont than this one, personally.”
If someone does beat Justify, the most likely candidate is Good Magic, who ran his heart out in the Derby to be second. His trainer, Chad Brown, is hoping that his horse handles the two-week turnaround better than Justify and makes up the gap that way.
Quip, the third choice at 12-1, is more of an X-factor because he didn’t run in the Derby. But he has class and speed, and jockey Florent Geroux will likely send him to the lead out of the No. 1 post position.
Does Quip have the quality to withstand that kind of pressure all the way around? It seems unlikely.
Lukas may have the most intriguing of the long shots with Bravazo, who had a troubled trip in the Derby but finished a good sixth and was one of the few running hard at the end. Without traffic trouble, he should move up in the Preakness and will be closing late.
“This is my favorite leg of the Triple Crown because it’s a relaxed atmosphere, everyone’s in the same barn so we can hang out with each other. The tension of the Derby is over,” Baffert said. “I love this place.”
He’ll probably love it even more Saturday night.