It’s 7:30 a.m., and Justify, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, has come up from the barn area to the racetrack at Churchill Downs.
Exercise rider Humberto Gomez tightens slightly at the reins, and the big chestnut horse stops at the edge of the track. The pair is waiting for the track to reopen after a break to renovate the surface.
Divots from horses training earlier in the morning have been smoothed out, and the dirt cooled with a heavy spray of waters. Tractor-drawn harrows roll along last, three-wide, combing a fluffy bounce into the dirt racing surface. Birds sing. The morning sun pops up over the trees.
It’s a picture, and Justify is a painting in it.
The horse stands quietly at the edge of the world’s most famous racetrack. Balanced on all four feet, not fidgeting, looking ahead at the broad vista. And looking very interestedly.
In the infield, workers are still disassembling tents and stands — long after the throngs of Derby Day fans have departed. Off in the distance is the mammoth grandstand and its famous Twin Spires.
Some people see a Derby-winning horse paused like this and think it could be gazing far away, imagining its place in history.
More likely it is the racetrack at which Justify is looking so intently. Studying. Surveying. Anticipating being out on it again — his turf, his field of glory, his playpen, his workbench. Justify has only been here two weeks from California, so it’s new to him. He could be back again at Churchill Downs in November for the Breeders’ Cup.
But right now, Saturday’s Preakness Stakes is next on the agenda for Justify. And this is a work morning.
Trainer Bob Baffert has flown in the night before from California to take a close look at the colt to see how he’s coming up to the Preakness. So Justify won’t just be galloping. He’ll get the chance to run some — and that’s A-OK with him.
On the ground, Baffert steps out on the track and peers down the backstretch to see if the harrows have come off.
Justify has his ears up. They’re pointing forward. He can’t wait to run.
‘Still on Go!’
Minutes later, Gomez spins Justify around the track, very nicely. The tall horse stretches out his long legs. Down the homestretch and around the far turn — not at full speed, but clicking off long strides. Looking strong and fit. The winner of the 144th Kentucky Derby seems ready to roll in the 143rd Preakness.
Back at Barn 33, as Justify gets a bath and a walk to cool out, Baffert is surrounded by reporters. He says he loved the way the horse ran, but keeps coming back to things like the look on Justify’s face. Those ears forward.
“He looks healthy, hasn’t lost an ounce of weight — and that’s very important,” says Baffert. “That’s one thing about him. The next day after The Derby when I brought him out, he was so bright, so full of energy, I was pretty impressed myself. ’Cause usually, all my Derby winners (Baffert has scored with five now) it takes them about five days to snap out of it. But he was pretty sharp.
“You can tell by their eyes, the body language, that he’s enjoying it out there,” Baffert adds. “You could tell he wanted to go faster than the rider wanted him to. To me that tells me he’s still on Go!”
A big guy, but light on his feet
All trainers follow the signs Baffert is mentioning. And pay extra attention during the Triple Crown run because it is so demanding. Baffert is especially sensitive to any change in Justify’s physical verve. The colt didn’t make his first start until Feb. 18, which — as has been frequently noted — makes him the first Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo, in 1882, to win The Derby without having the seasoning benefit of racing at age 2.
Justify went from a first-start February win, to a second victory in March, to winning the Santa Anita Derby in April. Another month and he was sweeping the Kentucky Derby — in commanding fashion.
It’s an especially amazing feat, Baffert notes, for a large, muscular horse — as opposed to a lighter, trimmer athlete.
“I sort of ran him into shape — 75 days, he did all that,” says Baffert. “And he’s still the big, massive horse that he is. But he’s light on his feet and he can take a lot. He’s shown how tough he is. To do what he did in such a short period of time is pretty remarkable, especially beating a (top) field like he did in winning the Kentucky Derby and going as fast as he did early.”
Baffert says he was awed. “He was like a rocket, and just kept shedding booster stages.”
Obviously, with the track sloppy on a rainy Derby Day, it was a big advantage for Justify to break well and run along with another horse at the front of the 20-horse field. He took the lead exactly when jockey Mike Smith wished, and quickly opened daylight — while the trailers were being coated with waves of sand-laced spray.
On the other hand, Justify did have to run all the way. No laying back, then coming on. And he repelled a bid by second-place finisher Good Magic. A good shot. Rejected.
Justify did pick up some scratches and a foot bruise in running on the sloppy mud surface. But Baffert says the horse healed up in a few days with normal racetrack remedies. “I wouldn’t have gone back to California if I thought it was serious,” says Baffert. “It’s stuff we all deal with every day in horse racing.”
Of course, all that could be taken with a grain of salt.
Trainers do not always tell the truth about horse injuries. Or diminish the seriousness of problems sometimes. But Justify seems so in-the-pink now there should be no cause to worry.
And he seems to have retained a nice conditioning edge after a hard mile-and-a-quarter race. Justify was smooth and eager throughout his training move Monday. In hand and in stride.
And “light on his feet,” as Baffert mentioned. Coming by us, one could hardly hear Justify’s hoof beats. Couldn’t hear a sound of him breathing.
Be sharp. Repeat.
Justify will enjoy a light run up to the Preakness, training-wise. With just two weeks between the first two legs of the Triple Crown, there’s little need to tighten the screws. The horse just won The Derby. He’s sharp. Now he should simply repeat.
That’s what’s happened with regularity in the past two decades. The Derby winner simply repeats in the Preakness — producing a string of Triple Crown candidates for the Belmont Stakes, three weeks on from the Preakness.
Baffert has won six Preakness Stakes, including with all four of his previous Derby winners. In 2015, American Pharoah was able to add the Belmont Stakes for racing’s first Triple Crown championship in 27 years.
The Preakness was Pharoah’s most dominant win.
A huge and sudden rain storm hit Pimlico Race Course minutes before the start, but it looked like Pharoah — who already had a reputation for loving the mud — was simply delighted. He was kind of prancing and almost (it seemed) laughing at his opposition as the field loaded in the gate.
Then firing out of the gate, leaving a spray behind him at the other horses.
“American Pharoah — Pimlico was the first time we ever really let him run (the way he wished),” says the trainer. “Yeah, it was a monsoon, and the track wasn’t sealed. He was cooking. He was doing it, having fun.”
Like the way, Baffert says, Justify ran for jockey Mike Smith in The Derby. Free-running and happy.
“When they get out there like that — and you see those ears …”
Justify is owned by a partnership of racing partnership teams — many in the forefront of American racing. That includes Win-Star Farm, in Kentucky, where the horse was bred and raised — and will eventually stand at stud. Also in the loop are China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, and Starlight Racing.
Starlight includes a number of Louisvillians, including Jack and Laurie Wolf, Jim Shircliff, Tom Mueller, Ed Glasscock, Clint Glasscock, Anita Cauley, and Pat and Mary Nixon.
All to be on hand at Pimlico Saturday (6:30 p.m., NBC), where “Maryland, My Maryland” is sung before the Preakness in the way “My Old Kentucky Home” comes before the Kentucky Derby.
And maybe next, if all goes well, a stroll up the “The Sidewalks of New York” for the Belmont Stakes.
Most have gone home, but Magic will try Justify again
The big obstacle for Justify in the Preakness should be Good Magic, who ran second in the Kentucky Derby.
Good Magic, the Blue Grass Stakes winner, was close up through the early stages of The Derby, with jockey Jose Ortiz not letting Justify out of his sight. Ortiz timed his run at Justify coming into the stretch, but Justify found another of those rocket stages to repulse the bid.
The Magic stayed on well enough in to just stave off Audible, who was coming along late. Audible is not entered in the Preakness.
Trainer Chad Brown, who handles Good Magic for e Five Racing and Stonestreet Stables, decided soon after The Derby to try Justify again in the Preakness. Brown thinks the Belmont isn’t Good Magic’s best kind of distance, at 1 1/2 miles. But the Preakness might be, at 1 3/16th miles — a 16th less than the Derby’s 1 ¼ miles.
“The horse has been training very well since The Derby,” Brown told the Paulick Report. “He bounced out of the race in great condition, and I think he deserves a chance in the Preakness.”
Brown thought Good Magic was just hitting his best form coming into The Derby.
“I think (the Preakness) is a great opportunity for the horse,” said Brown, who won the Preakness in his first attempt, last year with Cloud Computing. “I wouldn’t do it simply because he’s going to get a bit of freshening next … It’s remarkable to see how well the horse is moving and his energy level. He already has his weight back. He just looks great. I’m excited about it.”
Brown admits his horse needs to “close the gap” with Justify to beat The Derby winner.
“Even though our horse ran an excellent race in The Derby, and earned a lot of respect from everybody, he needs to move forward — and Justify needs to come back to us a little bit,” said Brown. “I think that the margin I saw between the two horses is not out of the question that we’ll be able to make up the difference.”
Go lightly to the windows
This scribe, who tabbed Good Magic in The Derby, thinks the Magic might be live in the Preakness. He’s the one who could upset Justify. Maybe.
Betting-wise, it is hard to imagine an exacta combining the two horses that could pay off more than peanuts. But a small win bet on Good Magic might be worth a shot.
There’s no justification for a win bet on Justify. He’s going to be maybe 1-5. If you’ve got the $5, you don’t need the $1.
But we do understand the desire to back Justify: If he’s your horse, you want to bet him.
A possibility is a “superfecta part wheel.”
Take only No. 7 Justify on top, with four horses second, third and fourth. Total $24. I’d be sure to use Quip, who skipped The Derby and has speed. Say: $1 superfecta, No. 7, with 1-2-5-6, with 1-2-5-6, with 1-2-5-6.
But back to Good Magic.
For a little bolder run for your money, you might “key” No. 5 Good Magic on top in a $1 trifecta wheel, with All second, and All third. Costs $42 — looking for three figures. Say: $1 trifecta wheel, 5, with All, with All.
But you probably shouldn’t listen to me. The last winner of the Preakness I picked was Survivor. You remember Survivor, don’t you?