The Kentucky Derby lived up to our lofty expectations for drama, challenging a gifted field of 3-year-old thoroughbreds with a miserable rain that created the perfect, if muddy, platform for Justify to assert his brilliance.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt stomped all over the Curse of Apollo, the 136-year run in which no horse had won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. He also outclassed a crop of contenders that had been regarded as historically good entering the race.
But was Justify too good?
It’s a valid question given the thin field of contenders coming together to challenge him in the May 19 Preakness. Can one of them shock the racing world? Is Justify vulnerable in some unforeseen way? All the questions revolve around the Derby champion as we look ahead to five key storylines for the second leg of the Triple Crown series:
How will Justify cope with the two-week turnaround from the Derby to the Preakness?
The compact schedule is one of many unfamiliar challenges presented by the Triple Crown series, especially to modern racehorses accustomed to lighter schedules than their predecessors.
But here’s an important fact to keep in mind: All of Baffert’s previous four Derby winners have gone on to win the Preakness. The white-haired trainer makes no bones about working his horses hard. Some break down, but those who’ve made it to the Derby in fine form have held up to the rigors of the subsequent races.
Justify is a unique case, because he went from entering the gate for his maiden race at Santa Anita to dominating the Derby in a span of 77 days. We simply haven’t seen anything like that, so it’s hard to put limits on him or project where he goes from here.
Jockey Mike Smith said Justify finished the Derby with energy to spare, and he’s a massive colt with a hearty appetite — all signs that bode well for his endurance.
On the other hand, some observers will wonder about his health after he appeared uncomfortable putting weight on his left hind leg the morning after the Derby. Baffert initially said the discomfort resulted from a chronic skin condition that’s exacerbated by wet conditions. Veterinarians at Churchill Downs later said Justify suffered a heel bruise that was responding well to treatment. He returned to galloping Thursday morning without discomfort.
Regardless of the specifics, skeptics will want to see him run a great race in Baltimore before setting their fears aside.
Can any other horse from the Derby upset Justify in a rematch?
The pickings here were looking slim before trainer/owner Mick Ruis changed his mind and pointed Bolt d’Oro toward Baltimore. Justify sent his rivals to the four winds, some of them to await a potential rematch in the Belmont Stakes, others to regroup for races after the Triple Crown series.
The answer to the question still hinges largely on what trainer Chad Brown does with Derby runner-up Good Magic. Brown, who won the 2017 Preakness with Cloud Computing, had not decided on his plan as of Thursday.
Good Magic won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile this past fall, and he legitimately challenged Justify in the Derby. Brown came out of the race believing there was no way his horse could have caught the winner. But Good Magic is a worthy champion in his own right and could turn the tables if Justify is off his best form.
After him, the closest returning challenger is sixth-place Derby finisher Bravazo, trained by D. Wayne Lukas. You have to admire Lukas’ zeal for taking shots, even if they’re long. He knows Justify is a heavy favorite, but he also knows heavy favorites falter.
Ruis’ surprise change of heart on Bolt d’Oro added significant quality to the potential field, despite the colt’s 12th-place finish in the Derby. Bolt d’Oro has lost to Justify twice without pressing him either time, but he has been rated one of the best horses in this 3-year-old class since last fall, so he can’t be dismissed.
Are there any fresh horses poised to pull the upset?
We often make too much of this issue. Usually, contenders who skip the Derby simply are not in the same class as the horse who won it.
But then there are cases like last year, when Brown held Cloud Computing out of the Derby and brought him to Baltimore at the perfect time to pick off a vulnerable Always Dreaming.
Strangely, the best candidate to pull off such a gambit in 2018 is owned by the same farm, WinStar, that co-owns Justify. Quip qualified for the Derby after he won the Tampa Bay Derby and finished second in the Arkansas Derby. But trainer Rodolphe Brisset held him out and prepared for the Preakness instead.
Some analysts speculated WinStar would keep Quip out of the Preakness to give Justify an easier race. But the farm’s president and CEO, Elliott Walden, said Brisset’s horse has earned his shot in Baltimore. Walden’s take on the issue has been consistent — if Justify is a legitimate Triple Crown contender, he’ll handle Quip.
Beyond his in-house competition, Justify will also face another Lukas-trained horse in Sporting Chance (an apt name for the situation) and possibly Federico Tesio Stakes winner Diamond King, who might have instead run in the May 12 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park by the time you read this.
The other Preakness contenders are also-rans from various Derby preps. Again, the pickings are slim.
How will the Preakness hold up as an event?
Though there hasn’t been much recent news regarding the future of Pimlico Race Course or a potential push to move the Preakness to Laurel Park, we always take stock of that fragile situation in the third week of May.
It’s inevitable, given Maryland Jockey Club officials’ annual fear that the venerable facility will suffer a catastrophic failure in the immediate run-up to the Preakness. Despite that uncertain backdrop, the event has reeled in record crowds in recent years, with 140,327 patrons packing the grounds in 2017.
Beyond the attendance and the facility, many eyes will focus on the infield, where Under Armour’s celebrity-packed tent will be missing for the first time in years. Will the absence of Kevin Plank’s stamp affect the overall feel of the event? Probably not for most people, but we’ll see.
Is Justify worthy of the inevitable comparisons to American Pharoah?
This is really the question that looms above all others. With an unremarkable field shaping up to challenge him, Baffert’s big chestnut appears set for a romp.
The trainer has already said Justify belongs in the same rarefied class as the 2015 Triple Crown winner, at least when it comes to talent. Yes, he’ll run the Preakness with barely three months of racing experience behind him, but he’s been that impressive.
We still don’t know how Justify might react if he doesn’t break cleanly and if Smith can’t steer him immediately to clear running space. But this small Preakness field might not be well-suited to ask those questions of the Derby champion.
He almost has to win the Preakness with room to spare, as American Pharoah did, to stay on track.