BALTIMORE — He emerged out of the fog, and the crowd at Pimlico roared. From where most of the 134,487 people were watching the 143rd Preakness, it was unclear exactly what had happened.
When Justify vanished into the abyss leaving the first turn, he had been locked in an eye-to-eye duel with Good Magic, the same horse that challenged him at the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby. And when Justify emerged, it was obvious that nothing had changed, the match race still ongoing.
At that moment, it seemed we were going to learn far more about Justify in the last quarter-mile than we had in any of his previous four races, all won rather easily. Was he going to sprint away from the field like American -Pharoah and romp his way to the Belmont? Was he going to have to gut it out for the first time in his life? Might he actually lose?
“It was like the longest race of my life,” said Teo Ah Khing, chairman of the China Horse Club, which co-owns Justify. “Twenty seconds without seeing the horse felt like years.”
If those 20 seconds felt like a long time, imagine how he’ll feel for the next three weeks. Because now, after holding off Bravazo to win the Preakness by a half-length, Justify ascends to superstar status with a chance to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in horse-racing history.
Though that might not invite the frenzy it used to now that the soul-crushing Triple Crown drought ended in 2015, it’s still a big deal. And yet, in many ways, there’s even more suspense for Justify as he leaves Pimlico than when he arrived.
Justify, 5-for-5 in his career, is undoubtedly a terrific horse. But his win in the Preakness did not evoke memories of previous Triple Crown winners, nor will it intimidate any of his rivals from trying to beat him in the Belmont.
It did not look like a young superstar getting better, but rather a horse that has raced five times in 91 days and regressed for the first time in his career.
“I was never relaxed during the race,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He was in for a fight. I was just praying for the wire.”
Indeed, the wire came just in time for Justify, who finally shook free of Good Magic with 3/16ths of a mile left but then had to hold off charges from Tenfold, who wound up third, and a fast-closing Bravazo, who made up ground with every stride as they crossed the wire. In the immediate aftermath, the trainers of both horses sounded excited about getting another chance June 9.
“We were three-quarters of a length away from where we want to be, so let’s figure out how to get it,” said Tenfold’s trainer, Steve Asmussen. “Heck, yes [we’re going to the Belmont].”
Even though it seemed for so many years that it might be impossible for a horse to win the Triple Crown in the modern era of racing — before American Pharoah came along, there were plenty of calls from industry critics for the races to be spaced out or even shortened — being hard to win is what makes it so great.
It is the ultimate automatic entry for immortality because nobody lucks their way into the club. The ones who made it earned it, and the ones who fell short weren’t meant to be there.
Baffert knows what it’s like to be on both sides of that line. American Pharoah, who clearly took a step forward from the Derby to the Preakness and peaked in a dominating Belmont win, was truly as good as we thought.
Silver Charm, Baffert’s first Derby-Preakness winner back in 1997, finally showed the wear and tear of a tough campaign after gutting it out against Captain Bodgit and Free House in the first two legs and faded to a well-beaten second in the 1½-mile Belmont.
“If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen,” said Elliott Walden, the CEO of WinStar Farms, which co-owns the horse. “And if not, it just won’t.”
With Justify, the Preakness will allow fans (and rivals) to see what they want to see. Despite Good Magic pressuring him all the way around, some will point to the moderate fractions in the Preakness (47.19 seconds for a half-mile, 1:11.42 for six furlongs) and see holding on for dear life to beat Bravazo as an ominous sign for the Belmont.
The more optimistic types will say that Justify had to dig down deep for the first time in his life, and that coming out of it so tired will help build his stamina to run 1½ miles.
“When I saw it was Good Magic [pressing the lead], I knew we were in for a horse race and he was going to push me really early,” jockey Mike Smith said. “This was a race that he’s going to get fit off of.”