By Melissa Hoppert
BALTIMORE – The day looked much the same. There were wastebaskets catching rainwater seeping through the ceiling, cardboard and wood chips and carpets meant to soak up days of dampness. The track resembled peanut butter, not dirt.
Despite the dreadful conditions, the fans, in rain boots and parkas, were not deterred: They wanted to witness the second act of what they hoped would soon become history.
It was not 2015, when the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah went to the lead and stayed there, winning by 7 lengths to capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown in a storybook run that culminated in his becoming the first winner in 37 years.
On Saturday, it was Justify, ridden by Mike Smith and also trained by Baffert, who won the 143rd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course to set up a shot at the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in New York in three weeks. It was Justify’s fifth victory in five tries and his third on a wet track.
In five tries, Baffert has never lost the Preakness with a Derby winner. In fact, Justify’s victory sent him into a tie with R. Wyndham Walden, who won seven editions in the 1800s, including five straight, for the most Preakness wins.
There was no question that Justify could handle the slop – he made it look easy amid a steady and driving rain on the first Saturday in May, when he became the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without having competed as a 2-year-old.
Still, he was no sure thing. This is horse racing, which has a way of spoiling even the rowdiest of parties.
The morning after the Derby, Baffert brought Justify out of his barn for a victory lap, but the horse appeared agitated and unable to put much weight on his left hind leg. Baffert did not notice anything wrong at the time, but when videos of the appearance were posted on social media, speculation swirled that Justify might be lame.
Baffert later said that Justify was dealing with “scratches,” a skin irritation that is common among horses who encounter wet surfaces. But when Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarians examined Justify two days later, they found no sign of a rash, instead saying he had a bruised heel. After a few more days of rest and relaxation, Justify returned to the track looking like his old self. Before he left Kentucky for Baltimore, he was reshod and an adhesive reinforcement was placed on his left hind hoof. Baffert said he was confident that Justify was ready.
Baffert made good on his promise Saturday, when Justify looked no worse for the wear as he toyed with his competition. He breathes the same air as American Pharoah, Baffert boasted all week.
On a day that began with a royal wedding, Justify certainly appeared worthy of a Triple Crown coronation in three weeks’ time. All that is left is one more race and one more victory to land him among the titans of the sport of kings.