BALTIMORE (AP) — Justify keeps showing something new each time he races.
In the Kentucky Derby, he showed he could run in the mud in a crowded, 20-horse field. In the Preakness, he showed he could withstand the challenge of a top rival pressing him early and hold off others before the finish line — also in the mud.
For his next trick, he’ll need to show he can endure the grueling 1½-mile Belmont in New York on June 9. And it he does that, Justify will become horse racing the second Triple Crown winner in four years.
“If you’re a superior horse, you can do it,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “I’ve seen horses go a mile and a half and they never won again. It’s a weird, quirky race, but I don’t see why though he wouldn’t handle it.”
Had the Preakness been another tenth of a mile, a hard-charging Bravazo might’ve passed Justify and ended the Triple Crown bid on Saturday. Bravazo will go to the Belmont where Justify will have plenty of familiar challenges — and a fresh ones — standing in the way of becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.
In addition to Bravazo, Kentucky Derby horses Hofburg, Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy and Preakness horse Tenfold are among those likely to challenge Justify in what’s considered the most difficult race on the Triple Crown trail.
Bravazo is “a tough little horse, and I think his pedigree will let him run that far,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “So, we’ll take him on and see what happens.”
Justify’s run in the Kentucky Derby was convincing enough to scare off a few opposing owners and trainers from the Preakness. Given the fatigue of difficult races two weeks apart, they could see Justify as beatable at the Belmont.
Baffert, who had three near-misses with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem before American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, said Justify is built to power through the fatigue caused by running on the slop twice against high-caliber competition.
“You do hate to keep running on these wet tracks because it does take a little bit out of them,” Baffert said before Justify flew back to Louisville, Kentucky, for some rest and more training. “It can be tough. It’s not as tough on him because he’s a big horse. He can handle it. He was blowing pretty good, he got a good blow out of (the Preakness), but he wasn’t as tired as we thought he was.”
As gassed as Justify looked at the wire in the Preakness , jockey Mike Smith is convinced the undefeated colt could have run longer and picked up the pace if asked. Finishing a half-length ahead of Bravazo made it by far Justify’s closest victory of his five, but it counts just the same.
“Although he got tired (Saturday), he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said. “I certainly could have got after him a whole lot more a lot earlier and made him do a little more, as well.”
Justify has already done more than expected, a bit of a late bloomer who doesn’t have the pedigree of someone like American Pharoah. Baffert went into the year thinking McKinzie gave him a better chance and on Friday recalled thinking of Justify, “The backup horse is pretty good, too.”
Now all eyes are on Justify, who might have one major factor in his favor. His owners and Baffert have connections to Audible, My Boy Jack and Solomini, who ultimately might not be entered in the Belmont because they could threaten Justify’s chances of finishing off the Triple Crown.
Baffert is unsure whether to bring Solomini back from the Derby, though it wouldn’t make much sense to put him in Justify’s way. Baffert is sure about Justify, who looked healthy and that a bruised heel was not an issue in an impressive showing in the mud and fog at the Preakness.
“I’m feeling pretty in awe of the horse,” Baffert said. “I don’t see why not go to the Belmont, as long as he stays like this. He looks good.”
Twelve out of the last 13 times the horse who won the Derby and Preakness lost the Belmont. It’s certainly the test of a champion for a reason, and co-owner Elliott Walden is hoping for the best with three weeks of hype ahead.
“Those things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” Walden said. “If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen. And if not, it just won’t.”