It would be hard to imagine a more dismal Triple Crown season. Unexpectedly, the Kentucky Derby (G1) turned into a sodden, sloppy affair, watched by tens of thousands of soaked spectators.
Preakness Week was, if possible, even worse. The rain came all week, in torrents and in sprinkles, accompanied by flash flood watches and a run on rain boots. And everyone knew that Preakness Day would bring no relief.
The infamous infield was a mudfest. The apron was largely bereft of customers. And all day long, on a sloppy racetrack, chalk and speed carried the day, offering little in the way of either profit or excitement.
And then, when the rain finally, finally stopped…the fog rolled in. Slowly but inexorably, creeping in first over the backstretch, and then curling around the turns, and finally shrouding even the stretch, with just a furlong or so of Pimlico dirt visible.
And that was a damn shame, because we all missed a hell of a horse race.
From the gate, it was clear that Good Magic wasn’t going to let Justify have his way in the 143rd edition of the Preakness Stakes (G1), all alone on a speed-favoring track. We couldn’t see much of it, but the infield screen revealed a cloudy tussle up the backstretch, Good Magic refusing to yield an inch.
And then the field went into the final turn, and we waited.
We waited for the horses to emerge from the fog, waited to see who was on the lead and waited to see whether we’d head to Belmont Park with a Bob Baffert Triple Crown on the line for the second time in four years.
It was those white WinStar silks that emerged in front, but Good Magic was still there, and so, too, were Bravazo and Tenfold, and none of them was conceding, not an inch, not a nostril.
The finish line was still in the clear, but from everywhere except right there on the line, it was too close to call, until the crowd roared, and we knew that the chestnut colt with the flashy blaze and undefeated record would go to New York to try to get his name in the record books, again.
A 2-5 winning favorite on a day of winning favorites, Justify paid $2.80 for a $2 win bet. Bravazo was second by a half-length, with Tenfold a neck back in third. Good Magic held for fourth by a neck.
“This was a hard race on him, the hardest so far,” Baffert said. “Mike Smith is the one that brought him home.”
The Preakness win was Baffert’s seventh, giving him more than any other trainer, one more than his friendly rival this week with D. Wayne Lukas, who had to settle for runner-up. Mike Smith got his second Preakness win, 25 years after his first with Prairie Bayou.
“A chance at a Triple Crown at my age would be a great way to ride off into the sunset,” said the jockey, hastening to add that he’s not retiring any time soon. “I don’t think I was ready for it when I was younger, but I am now.”
Baffert, of course, has been here before: three years ago with American Pharoah, and twice before that, unsuccessfully. The Belmont Stakes (G1) is, of course, a different challenge than those this lightly-raced horse has already faced: longer, on a track with a distinctive surface, a third race in five weeks, almost certainly with horses coming in fresh.
After these last two races, Team Justify may well be hoping for yet more rain in three weeks. And if the rain does come, the chestnut colt will try to do what he’s done twice already: gleam brightly through the gloaming, outshining his competition and the weather.