On Track With Johnny D: He’s Special

Justify is special. That’s a ‘known known.’ And he’s got the paper to prove it. Five starts. Five wins. Nice. Two Triple Crown race attempts. Two Triple Crown race wins. Really nice. The first horse in history to accomplish the feat without racing as a 2-year-old. Priceless!

So, take it from this long-in-the-tooth horseplayer and avoid the temptation to measure his achievements too finely, to denigrate his competition, to nitpick at perfection. Instead, please, revel in his accomplishments. Embrace his beauty, strength and speed. Enjoy him. Someday you proudly will tell a fellow sports fan that you saw Justify in his prime.

Here’s one horseplayer’s 2018 Preakness highlights:

The Start

This handicapper was certain that Justify would use his early speed to be on or near the Preakness lead. A Bob Baffert-trained horse doesn’t wait for an invitation. He gets the party started. But before the race, it wasn’t entirely clear which horse or horses might also contest the early pace.

By virtue of a rail post-position draw it was assumed that Quip’s hand would be forced, and that he would be sent for the lead. Another runner that had exhibited some early speed in previous sprints was longshot Diamond King. If prompted, he might force the early issue. Bravazo, drawn just outside of Justify, had won the Risen Star at Fair Grounds by showing early speed and then outdueling co-leader Snapper Sinclair home by a nose. Perhaps similar tactics might be attempted at Pimlico?

Nagging at this horseplayer, however, was the feeling that none of these previously-mentioned runners actually seemed fast enough to challenge Justify in the early going. There also were some pre-race whispers that, after ineffectually stalking him in the Derby, Good Magic might take the fight to Justify. “Hopefully, someone else goes [to the early lead]. If Justify goes, and I have to be the one putting pressure on him, I will be,” ‘Magic’s Jockey Jose Ortiz was quoted in a press release. “I will have to turn it into a match race. It looks like a match race on paper. You can’t give Justify an inch.”

The start of the 143rdPreakness sealed the deal. Quip, Diamond King and Bravazo--potential threats to force the pace—didn’t or couldn’t go early. Only Justify and Good Magic broke running. And that was that. The race was on. Since Good Magic had drawn inside of Justify, and since he had broken so well, and since the early pace was reasonable, jockey Ortiz did the only thing he could: he permitted his horse to take the lead. Justify sat to his outside and they travelled as a team around the track and into the stretch.

The Fog

A most memorable aspect of the 143rdPreakness Stakes was the rare fog that blanketed Pimlico Race Course. The main track, drowning under seven inches of recent race, already was a sea of mud, certain to make visibility challenging for horses, jockeys, fans and race-callers alike. However, the fog, that first appeared one race before the main event and then intensified right through Preakness post time, elevated the vision level warning to ‘nearly impossible.’ While yours truly never has experienced anything quite like this during a major racing event, the eerie scene was reminiscent of the famous Fog Bowl, an NFL playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears on New Year’s Eve in 1988. According to Wikipedia, a dense fog rolled over Chicago’s Soldier Field during the second quarter, cutting visibility to about 15-20 yards for the rest of the game.

Visibility wasn’t nearly that limited Saturday, but a one-mile racing oval encompasses way more real estate than a 100-yard football field. Saturday, fans worldwide relied on views of the race delivered via an assortment of cameras strategically positioned around the track.

In attendance and situated directly across from Pimlico’s first turn, with a head-on view of the start located way at the other end of the grandstand, it was incredibly strange to hear the gates open, the crowd roar, and then not actually see horses for several seconds.

Through the haze, as the field gradually materialized, horses and riders first appeared as faint, dark, menacing figures—like the arrival of bad guys in an old Western.  All that was missing was a haunting soundtrack. Gradually, the figures morphed into colorful, hoof-pounding Thoroughbreds. And by the time the leaders raced past our vantage point, Good Magic and Justify were heartily engaged in what would be a nearly race-long tug of war.

The Conclusion

Justify and Good Magic traded body blows and haymakers for one mile and two-sixteenths of the one mile and three-sixteenths Preakness Stakes. (I’m sure there’s a better way to reduce that initial fraction, but math never was my strong suit and, besides, you get the point.) Only in the final sixteenth of a mile did the Kentucky Derby winner draw clear of the Louisville runner-up. ‘Magic had tried stalking Justify in Kentucky and now had hooked him in Maryland. Neither had proved successful.

Justify disposed of Preakness shadow Good Magic with about a sixteenth of a mile to run, but the race was far from over. First, the Steve Asmussen-trained Tenfold loomed a threat. Asmussen already had enjoyed a bountiful Friday and Saturday in Charm City—his horses had won the $100k Skipat, $200k Chick Lang, $150k Maryland Sprint and $100k James Murphy--and he was on his way toward collecting a $50,000 Maryland Jockey Club bonus as the weekend’s top trainer. So, a victory by the charging Tenfold seemed almost fitting.

Then, on the far outside, D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo absolutely exploded to roar past Tenfold. You remember Lukas. The Coach. The guy with 14 Triple Crown event victories and 6 Preakness titles! As Bravazo flew on the outside it seemed fitting that Lukas would be the one to deny Baffert in the Preakness. Third for most of the race, Bravazo had dropped as far back as fifth in the lane. Now, with renewed vigor he was closing on the outside. The margin between Bravazo and Justified diminished with each stride.

According to Justify’s jockey Mike Smith, they had ‘em all the way. Were just playing possum. ‘Big Money’ Mike says that with the finish in sight he had taken his foot off the gas pedal—on second thought, perhaps a bit too early, he readily admits, “I didn’t think it would be that close.” Smith also explained that after the wire when Justify saw Bravazo he took off again. For the record, the latter never passed the former on the gallop out.

The Future

In a bit over two weeks, Justify will meet approximately 8 to 10 others at Belmont Park in the 150thBelmont Stakes. On the line is the Triple Crown—the sport’s most prestigious honor earned by just 12 previous equines. While Justify certainly will be an overwhelming favorite to win, some doubt he can do it. They point to his narrow margin of victory in the Preakness. His relatively weak 97 Beyer Speed Figure for the race—his slowest ever. They point to distance-loving well-rested Derby foes like Hofburg that have been waiting for revenge. They remind us that it had been 36 long years between Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2016).

Understood.

However, at this writing, just like in Baltimore, those poised to face Justify in New York lack enough speed to run with him early. If no one in the race acts as a sacrificial lamb--hooks Justify early as Good Magic did in the Preakness--then the rest of the field will have difficulty catching him. If permitted to settle into that long, magnificent, effortless stride, he will be gone.

Additionally, Justify’s already defeated nearly everyone set to face him, so something’s got to change for them to have a chance this time. What gives connections of challengers hope is that Justify will enter the Belmont Stakes off having had just two weeks rest between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and only three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Add to that the inconceivable notion that until Feb. 18, 2018 Justify hadn’t raced at all and you begin to understand that this horse is being asked to do something historic, something that no horse has ever even attempted, let alone achieved!

Yes, he’s special. And he’s outrun history at every step along the way to prove it. He can do it again.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: He’s Special

On Track with Johnny D |