In some ways it seemed appropriate that all we saw of
Justify in the stretch of the Preakness Stakes was a ghostly shroud, with his
white silks and white face, emerging from the murk that had settled on Pimlico
This colt has been shrouded in mystery since he burst on the
scene in mid-February as if conjured up by some magical potion. Where did this
powerhouse of a horse come from? How has he been able to come, see, and conquer
so much in such a short period of time? How has he been able to rip out so many
pages of the history books when so many have tried and failed for over a
hundred years? In the words of legendary British race caller Peter O'Sullevan
when witnessing something extraordinary, "What manner of horse is this?"
When the veiled image appeared inside the eighth pole of the
Preakness, although still obscured by the fog and mist, it nevertheless was
easily recognizable. No one looks like Justify. No one runs like Justify. No
one generates the power of Justify. Physically, he is indeed a man among boys.
But unlike his previous starts, this time he had others on his tail in hot
This scene is not what most had envisioned, but the majority
of those in the crowd had no knowledge of the battle Justify had just endured,
slugging it out every step of the way with last year's 2-year-old champion and
Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, whose jockey Jose Ortiz had decided
to throw his colt right into the fire from the start and stare the beast in the
eye, much to the surprise and chagrin of his trainer Chad Brown.
Good Magic was hanging in there doggedly, refusing to give
up the fight, but he could not withstand such a prolonged battle with the fast
and powerful Justify. Although he continued on gamely, the danger was coming
from the lightly raced Tenfold and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo. They
bore down on Justify, but the Derby winner never wavered and held on to defeat
Bravazo by a half-length, with Tenfold another neck farther back and a neck
ahead of the stubborn Good Magic. Even Lone Sailor, closing from last, was
beaten only two lengths.
It took only seconds for the Preakness result to be put in
the rear view mirror. All thoughts immediately turned to the Belmont Stakes and
the Triple Crown. Did the Preakness reveal a chink in Justify's armor? Has his
meteoric, history-defying rise begun its descent? After all, his margins of
victory have steadily decreased, from 9 1/2 lengths to 6 1/2 lengths to three
lengths to 2 1/2 lengths to a half-length. Some may question the overall depth
and quality of the Preakness field, as he narrowly held off one horse he had
already beaten by eight lengths in the Derby and another who had run only three
times in his life. And now he has to come back in three weeks and stretch out
to a mile and a half and face fresh horses who are lying in wait, including his
boyhood pal Vino Rosso.
But Justify has one thing in his favor. And that one thing
is as simple as it gets. He is unlike other horses we've seen. And we really
have no idea what he is capable of. Most horses would have cracked from such a
compressed campaign, stretching the limits and facing new and bigger challenges
with each race, and with no 2-year-old foundation.
No, Justify is not like other horses, because no one has
succeeded in accomplishing what he has in such a short period of time, and in
fact, no one has even attempted to accomplish what he has.
It is natural to ask how long this can continue and to what
heights can he soar? To demonstrate the enormity of what Justify has
accomplished and what he will be attempting to accomplish on June 9, the 12
Triple Crown winners went into the Belmont Stakes averaging just under 14
lifetime starts covering an 11 1/2-month span. Justify will be attempting to
join them in the pantheon with only five lifetime starts covering a 3 1/2-month
span. The shortest career from debut to the Belmont Stakes was Seattle Slew's 8
1/2 months. Even the fairly lightly raced American Pharoah's career spanned 10
months, separated by a break between his first three starts and his last four
starts. Can Justify keep this frantic pace up for one more race, going a
quarter of a mile farther than he's ever run?
In short, Justify will be trying to scale Mt. Everest on a
snowmobile; read War and Peace in a day; play Brahms's Second Piano Concerto in
five minutes. After what we've seen, can anyone say for certain he can't do it?
The reviews of the Preakness no doubt will be mixed, mainly
because of the close proximity of the first four finishers. Prior to the
Preakness, there were a number of references on TV and in print about Justify
being called "King Kong." Well, his detractors can point out the fact that King
Kong met his demise in New York. As the great Woody Stephens used to say,
"Those buildings get awfully tall once you cross the Hudson River."
We all knew what we had in American Pharoah, and Affirmed,
and Seattle Slew, and Secretariat, and the Triple Crown winners before them.
But the intrigue of Justify no doubt will have Belmont Park packed on June 9.
Unlike past Triple Crown winners, his story has been accompanied by historic
sidebars, including silencing the name Apollo forever.
What we have to remember is that winning margins in the
Preakness do not reflect what will happen in the Belmont. Secretariat won the
Preakness by 2 1/2 lengths and the Belmont by 31. Risen Star won the Preakness
by 1 1/4 lengths and the Belmont by 14. Point Given won the Preakness by 2 1/4
lengths and the Belmont by 12 1/4. Bet Twice and Easy Goer finished second in
the Preakness and won the Belmont by 14 and eight lengths, respectively. Twenty
Grand finished second in the Preakness and won the Belmont by 10. At the other
end of the spectrum, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide won the Preakness by record
margins of 11 and 9 3/4 lengths, respectively, and both lost the Belmont.
What did Secretariat, Risen Star, Point Given, and Easy Goer
have in common? They all were big, powerful, long-striding horses who relished
Belmont's sweeping turns and were able to run their opponents into the ground
and turn the Belmont Stakes into a rout. Don't think by winning the Preakness
by only a half-length, the imposing Justify, with that long powerful stride,
isn't going to love those big turns and isn't capable of running his opponents
into the ground and win the Belmont by a huge margin.
As for the final time of the Preakness, Justify ran almost three
full seconds or 15 lengths faster than American Pharoah and Exaggerator did on
sloppy tracks, and ran faster than I'll Have Another, Risen Star, War
Emblem, Northern Dancer, Bold Ruler, and Carry Back did on fast tracks. And his
1:55 4/5 was the same time as Hall of Famer Alysheba ran on a fast track.
As Tanya Gunther, who bred Justify with her father John,
said of the Preakness, "Wow, that was amazing. What guts and class."
There is a time for winning big and there is a time to show
your guts and class. Justify has now done it all, demonstrating all the
attributes we look for in a great horse. It is still too early to call Justify
great, but there is no arguing that what he has done so far has been
extraordinary and unprecedented, and definitely a prerequisite for greatness.
Whether he can get one more powerful thrust from that snowmobile and make it to
the top of Everest, we will have to wait and see.
But before then we can get clues from how he bounces out of
the Preakness, how he holds his weight, how he trains, and how high his energy
level is in the days leading up to the race. Until he is actually beaten we
will have no idea how deep his bottom is.
Like him or not to complete the Triple Crown, you have to
admit he is going to make things interesting and keep racing in the national
spotlight for the next three weeks.