That’s the question fans are asking as unbeaten Kentucky Derby (G1) star Justify looms as the heavy 1-2 favorite in the Preakness (G1). While every Preakness serves as a referendum on the Derby winner, Saturday’s 143rd renewal has more reason than most to conjure up a sense of déjà vu, and fuel hopes of a Triple Crown sweep.
For starters, the weather and track conditions. Churchill Downs turned into a sea of slop, thanks to an unexpected monsoon. That Derby Day record amount of rainfall was not forecast by meteorologists, who you could say are “handicapping” the weather. So far, the rain at Pimlico has been more predictable, and protracted throughout the week. The soggy forecast offers no hope for relief through Preakness time.
And that arguably offers less hope for Justify’s seven opponents, who have a right to fear his speed proving lethal once again in the slop. Maybe something else would be different, like post position? No such luck for them in that department either. Justify drew the exact same post as in the Derby – number 7 – and thus projects an eerily similar trip pressing the pace on the outside.
But there are two differences that could come into play, namely the pace scenario and the quick two-week turnaround between the Derby and the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
The tempo in the Preakness figures to be honest with a few forwardly-running types aside from Justify. Chief among them is “new shooter” Quip, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner and Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up who drew the rail. Also capable of being in the first flight early are fellow Triple Crown newcomer Diamond King, winner of the Federico Tesio at Laurel, and Bravazo, the Risen Star (G2) hero who was a sneakily-good sixth in the Derby. Yet barring an unforeseen development, there’s no equivalent of Derby pacesetter Promises Fulfilled who went out and burned himself up through scorching fractions.
If the Preakness pace scenario is fast but not crazy, Justify theoretically should have even more left in reserve to rebuff challenges and kick away. But his rivals would have more as well. The way the Derby unfolded, in a take-no-prisoners war of attrition, ended up playing to Justify’s strengths. A more normal race shape stands to be of (relatively) greater benefit to his opponents who simply can’t withstand a Derby-style slog.
The best example is Derby runner-up Good Magic, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1)-winning champion. Although his stalking style puts him within shouting distance of the leaders, he had to work harder than usual early to maintain a close position in a frenetically run Derby. Good Magic kept on well enough to offer a challenge in the stretch, but Justify stayed on better to the wire. Perhaps Good Magic will have some more life in his legs later in the Preakness.
The other Derby veteran, eighth-placer Lone Sailor, encountered a different issue as a deep closer. While he conserved more energy by racing well back, he also ran into traffic on the far turn and had too much ground to try to make up. The Preakness may give him the best of all worlds, a pace fast enough to set up his late kick but without stringing out the field as far as in the Derby. In other words, he’s likelier to have only about a five-length deficit or so, as in his near-miss in the Louisiana Derby (G2), compared to 11 lengths at Churchill.
Playing “what-if” parlor games is a fun way to envision the race, but we shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees. Justify remains the best horse on merit, the manner of his victory marking him out as an above-average Derby winner. Those beaten in the Derby all have to find a way to produce a career high to turn the tables, and a similar point applies, with greater force, to those who didn’t even contest the Derby. In addition to the aforementioned Quip and Diamond King, the other new shooters are Sporting Chance, winless since last summer’s Hopeful (G1), and Tenfold, a promising type eligible to move forward off a fifth in his Arkansas Derby stakes debut.
That’s why the second difference, the two-week turnaround, may be the more salient point for anyone trying to beat Justify. Rivals have to hope that he can’t keep up his accelerated program indefinitely. From his smashing debut in February, to his allowance romp, Santa Anita Derby (G1) conquest, and finally exorcising the “Apollo curse” as an unraced juvenile who went on to win Derby 144, Justify has risen like the proverbial meteor. Can he deliver another top effort wheeling back from the Derby? It’s true that his three Derby rivals are likewise coming back in two weeks, but they’ve had a different arc of development.
All four of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s previous Derby heroes added the Preakness – Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and Triple Crown champion American Pharoah (2015) – but again, all had a deeper foundation. We’re in uncharted territory with a Derby winner of Justify’s profile trying to turn the double two weeks later.
On a related note, the much-publicized bruise to Justify’s left hind heel coming out of the Derby was a hiccup. A short-lived one, to be sure, since he got over it fast and has impressed observers ever since resuming his daily gallops May 10. He’s sound, moving well, and giving all the signs of a happy horse ready to go to war again. Nevertheless, you’d rather not have to troubleshoot something in the midst of a Triple Crown bid. Right now it smacks of grasping at straws to over-interpret this, and I’m inclined to think we’ll see Justify bring his “A” game.
If Justify does regress and prove vulnerable, history is against a new shooter taking advantage. Over the past 25 years, only four Preakness winners had skipped the Derby – Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), Rachel Alexandra (2009), and Cloud Computing (2017).
The Derby generally remains the place to find the Preakness winner. During that same 25-year span, 10 Derby winners have doubled up in the Preakness, and 11 Preakness winners were rebounding from losses at Churchill Downs. Also since 1993, the Derby exacta has been replicated at Pimlico three times – Real Quiet over Victory Gallop (1998), Charismatic over Menifee (1999), and I’ll Have Another over Bodemeister (2012). The 1997 Derby trifecta was nearly repeated in the Preakness, with Silver Charm victorious again but Free House and Captain Bodgit switched the placings.
Given Justify’s towering presence, and Good Magic’s clear status as second-best, Preakness 143 might well be a virtual replay of Derby 144.
Justify photos courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography