The 2018 edition of the Preakness Stakes will go down at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland this week. As is usually the case, the vast majority of the public focus will be on the winner of the Kentucky Derby. This year’s winner, Justify, won the Derby comfortably by 2 ½ lengths, which has led to natural speculation regarding the horse’s chances at winning the most prestigious honor in horse racing: the Triple Crown.
For what it’s worth, Justify’s trainer isn’t lacking confidence. Bob Baffert, who has 6 Preakness Stakes victories on his ledger, has said that the Preakness is the easiest of the Triple Crown races to win. Then again, it’s worth noting that that comment came in a year in which he did not have the Kentucky Derby winner.
Then again, Baffert has fared well in this exact scenario in the past. He has taken 4 of his Kentucky Derby-winning horses to Pimlico in the past, and all 4 would go on to win the Preakness. Will Justify become the fifth? And, most importantly, will Justify go on to win the Triple Crown?
Obviously, history would suggest that Justify’s chances of accomplishing the feat are rather slim. Considering just 12 horses have ever won the Triple Crown, there’s plenty of mathematical evidence to suggest that he’ll falter at either the Preakness or the Belmont.
That said, we did have a Triple Crown winner 3 years ago in American Pharoah. American Pharoah was also trained by Bob Baffert. There is also less competition at the Preakness than there is at the Derby. The track at Pimlico is just 70 feet wide, which limits the maximum field to 14 compared to 20 horses that run at Churchill Downs.
This year, though, the field is expected to have only 8 horses. Justify’s dominant win in Kentucky combined with the short respite between races has led to several trainers and ownership groups opting against running their Derby horses at the Preakness. In fact, Bravazo, Good Magic and Lone Sailor are the only horses other than Justify slated to run both races this year.
The last time the Preakness had just 8 horses running? Yep, 2015, the year American Pharoah stormed his way to the Triple Crown. It’s also worth noting that the Preakness is the shortest of the Triple Crown races at just 1 3/16 miles. That’s another reason Baffert believes it’s the easiest of the 3 to win.
There are a lot of parallels between American Pharoah and Justify. This certainly has no predictive value, but it’s interesting, nevertheless.
The Preakness Should be the Easy Part
Baffert sounds a little arrogant when he says that the Preakness is the “easiest” race to win, but there’s some merit to having that attitude. As mentioned previously, the field of challengers for Justify is watered-down with just 7 other horses set to run the race.
With so many factors in his favor, it stands to reason that Justify may not even have to run his best race in order to win this weekend. His racing style is also conducive to getting a positive result at a short track like Pimlico. Jockey Mike Smith wants Justify to rush out to a lead and then just keep the pace for the duration.
While Justify breezed to a win at Churchill Downs, it’s not like Justify didn’t have more left in the tank. He raced to the front of the pack and essentially just sat there ahead of the field. The tighter turns at Pimlico could favor a horse that prefers charging from the back, but that’s typically the case against a front-runner that doesn’t have the skill level of a horse like Justify.
Legendary trainer Wayne Lukas, who has Bravazo and Sporting Chance running in the Preakness, says that Justify is the clear-cut favorite. He said, “Justify had an easy race, a good trip, no double, so it didn’t take a lot out of him. It’s his race to lose. Give him a clear shot at it and I definitely think he’s going to be very difficult to beat.”
Which Horses Can Upset Justify?
As of now, Good Magic is looking like the biggest threat to Justify’s Triple Crown run. Good Magic won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2017 and finished second to Justify at Churchill Downs. The primary question when it comes to Good Magic is whether he’ll have enough energy to give Justify a run again.
Good Magic was ridden hard in an attempt to thwart Justify in Kentucky, which caused trainer Chad Brown to ponder skipping the Preakness altogether. He ultimately decided Good Magic will give it a go at Pimlico, but the conditioning is clearly a concern. One common misconception is that running 2 races in 3 weeks is exceedingly tough on a horse when it’s the 3 races in 5 weeks that proves more dicey. Still, considering the trainer wasn’t fully convinced to race Good Magic this week, that’s a large enough red flag for me to consider the thoroughbred a long shot, at best.
As was the case in Kentucky, there’s a chance we get a wet track this week at the Preakness. It’s expected to rain all week long in Baltimore, which could certainly lead to another race full of soggy conditions and a muddy track. Justify had no issues with the subpar conditions, but it’s safe to wonder whether that could hamper some of his opponents at Pimlico.
Outside of Good Magic, there isn’t much that stands out among the field. Sporting Chance is the only other horse in the field to have won a Grade 1 race, but that was last year in Saratoga at the Hopeful Stakes. Quip won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, while Lone Sailor and Bravazo have recorded second-place finishes at Grade 2 events.
The Belmont is a Taller Task
While most believe the smart money is on Justify to get through the Preakness unscathed as the favorite, the Belmont shapes up as a considerably tougher challenge. Assuming Justify does win the Preakness, he will almost surely enter the Belmont as a heavy favorite, potentially at 3-4 or better to win.
The Belmont track is the longest of the 3 Triple Crown races – 1 ½ mile – which means it’s a considerably more taxing race than the one that goes down at Pimlico. When you add the length of the race up with the fact that this is going to be the horse’s third race in the span of 5 weeks, it can absolutely take a physical toll. We’ve seen a number of horses with the Derby and the Preakness before coming up short in the third and final Triple Crown event. Fatigue is a factor.
The track is also wider than the one at Pimlico, which likely means a larger field of contenders will be standing in Justify’s way. And, for the most part, most of them will be far more well-rested than the Triple Crown hopeful. Given the length of the track, the number of challengers and the potential fatigue, Justify will be up against it if he’s able to win the Preakness.
Based on his dominant win at Churchill Downs and the fact that his team believes he’s capable of much more than that, Justify clearly has all the necessary attributes of a potential Triple Crown winner. It remains to be seen whether he can actually accomplish the feat, but there is plenty of reason to believe we could get a second Triple Crown winner in the span of just 4 years.