The hype is justifiable.
The Bob Baffert-trained Justify won the Kentucky Derby and will start as hot favorite for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the US horse racing’s Triple Crown, in Baltimore Saturday.
Victory over the dirt of the Pimlico racecourse would set up Mike Smith’s mount for the longer mile-and-a-half of the Belmont Stakes in New York in three weeks’ time.
The last Triple Crown winner was American Pharoah in 2015 — also saddled by Hall of Fame trainer Baffert.
“There’s a saying I heard when I was very young: ‘Do the usual unusually well.’ Everything this horse does is not ordinary, it’s extraordinary,” Smith said in a video on the race’s social media channels.
‘Really, really special’
The 65-year-old Baffert has won the Preakness Stakes six times, including with all four of his previous Kentucky Derby winners — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and American Pharoah (2015).
However, only American Pharoah was able to go on and secure the fabled Triple Crown, the first horse to do so since Affirmed in 1978. Even the great California Chrome couldn’t quite land the third leg after winning the Derby and Preakness in 2014.
Justify, out of illustrious stallion Scat Daddy, was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby having not run as a two-year-old, breaking the so-called “Curse of Apollo” — a reference to the last horse to achieve the feat in 1882.
However, the chestnut colt has won all four of his races as a three-year-old and Baffert says he knew immediately he was exceptional.
“The first time we worked this horse I said, ‘I think we have something really special,’ and after his maiden win [in February] I thought, man, he’s really, really special,” Baffert told reporters at Churchill Downs.
Justify beat Good Magic by two-and-half lengths to clinch the $1.432 million first prize in Louisville and will face trainer Chad Brown’s chance again in the eight-runner field Saturday.
‘You can’t mail it in’
Victory in the Preakness, which was first staged in 1873, two years before the iconic Kentucky Derby, would tie Baffert on 14 wins in Triple Crown races alongside famed handler and close friend D. Wayne Lukas, who turned him down for a job as an 18-year-old.
Baffert can also move past Lukas’ six Preakness wins and tie 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden on a record seven victories in the event, known as the “Race for the Black-Eyed Susans” after the blanket of yellow flowers that is draped over the winner.
“I was really impressed with Justify in the Derby, Bob did a tremendous job,” the 82-year-old Lukas told reporters at Pimlico this week.
“Yet you can’t mail it in. We’ll keep it honest and we’re not going to walk over and engrave the trophy yet. You’ve got to at least make it difficult for him, even though he’s probably going to get it.”
Lukas has two entries in Bravazo, who was sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and Sporting Chance.
Of Bravazo, who will line up in lane eight outside Justify, he said: “I really think he’ll move forward. You’ve got have a tough horse here and he’s tough.”
Another fancied contender is Quip, trained by Rodolphe Brisset, who missed the Derby but has won three of his five starts including the Tampa Bay Derby in March. Derby third Audible will be absent, further justifying the claims of the favorite.
The race carries a purse of $1.5 million, with the historic $4 million Woodlawn Vase, created by Tiffany and Co. in 1860, awarded to the winner.