There are portions of the May 19 Preakness Stakes (G1) that will be unknown to anyone who wasn't riding the horses.
In an intense, white fog at Pimlico Race Course, Justify and Good Magic—the top two finishers in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)—dueled for the second prize in the Triple Crown. In the final turn, they were still beside each other, but from the quarter pole to mid-stretch, they disappeared.
At the eighth pole—when they returned to visibility—it appeared the battle had taken its toll on Good Magic, but the Derby winner kept on. The Bob Baffert-trained chestnut continued to drive to the wire as his rival tired, but it wasn't a breeze to the finish like his victory at Churchill Downs.
The closers were coming.
Bravazo—who stalked the pace in third during the backstretch run, about two or three lengths off the leaders—made the boldest move, widest of four in the final sixteenth, but came up a half-length short as Justify and jockey Mike Smith hit the wire in 1:55.93 for 1 3/16 miles over a sloppy (sealed) track. Tenfold, who also loomed three wide in the final furlong, finished a neck behind Bravazo and a neck in front of Good Magic for third.
"That was a nail-biter," Baffert said. "They put it to us. That was a good horse (Good Magic), and it was like they had their own private match race. Somebody had to give, and I'm glad it wasn't us. ... He had to really work for it. ... Good Magic, I tip my (hat) to him. He made us really work. He's a really good horse."
The fractions went in :23.11, :47.19, and 1:11.42 through six furlongs, and Justify had a head in front at each point of call. Good Magic's trainer, Chad Brown, said he was unhappy with the Curlin colt's trip under jockey Jose Ortiz.
"I didn't want the horse on the lead. I'm disappointed with the trip," Brown said. "The post (5, inside of Justify, who broke from post 7) didn't help. We were inside (Justify) the whole way. Unfortunately, our horse took the worst of it being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. He's not a horse that runs on the lead, so I'm pretty disappointed. He didn't give up. I know this horse very well, and he's not a horse to be on the lead. No way.
"You guys asked me all week what I wanted to do—sit off the pace and follow (Justify) around the track. And he's following us around."
Baffert also wasn't all that pleased with the pace setup, at least from what he could see in the backstretch.
"The quality—you can only get away with it with a superior horse, like he is," Baffert said. "Sometimes as a trainer and a jockey, we have to count on that horse to make up for—I can only do so much in two weeks, and I went really easy with him. ... Good Magic really put it to us. ... They didn't give it away. He was going to make us earn it, and I wasn't liking it down the backside ... but this is what makes horse racing so great.
"These great horses, they find themselves when they get in that situation, and today he showed he's not only this big, beautiful, gorgeous horse, but he is all racehorse. And that's what it took today."
Once he dispensed of Good Magic—who, to his credit, only finished a length behind the winner—Smith said he saw Bravazo closing on the outside but felt the wire would come in time.
"I looked over with about a hundred yards to go and saw him on the outside, but the wire was coming up pretty quick, and I felt we had him at bay," Smith said.
The Hall of Fame rider may have been comfortable and confident in the irons, but there were plenty of uneasy moments for Justify's other connections, especially when the Scat Daddy colt owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm disappeared from view.
"My boys were with me, and they said, 'I can't see anything,' and when I heard my boys say, 'He's making his move,' I saw the white (WinStar) colors turning for home. ... But I was never really relaxed during the race," Baffert said. "I knew he was in for a fight. I knew it was not going to be easy. But all I was doing—I was just praying for the wire."
The tension of not knowing what was occurring in the the thick fog was a common topic after the race.
"Really what got me more than anything is when they turned for home, and all of the sudden I couldn't see him," said WinStar owner Kenny Troutt. "That scared me to death."
"It seemed like an eternity, but when they went into the fog, I was like, 'Where are they? Where are they?'" said Elliott Walden, WinStar's president, CEO, and racing manager. "Just the anticipation of them coming out, and you knew when they went in that he was in front, so you were hoping to see those white silks coming out."
Teo Ah Khing of China Horse Club called the Preakness the "longest race of my life. Waiting for 20 seconds without seeing the result—it was like years."
Those who were looking to upset Justify were also in the dark as the field turned for home, hopeful the duel took just enough out of the Derby winner.
"What I saw of it, I liked a lot," said Bravazo's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. "I want them to extend it another 50 yards. He was running on at the end. ... A very good horse won the race—a very good horse. We ran at him. We kept him honest just like we said we would."
Smith, as the pilot, shed the most light on Justify's trip around Pimlico in front of an announced crowd of 134,487.
"(He) jumped (out of the gate) extremely well, and I was really happy he did that," the rider said. "(I was) a little bit concerned going around the first turn. He jumped the tracks right past the wire, where they roll the things out, and when he did, he really got to slipping. After we straightened up down the backside, he got back underneath himself. I felt very good. I looked over, and I looked to my inside and saw it was Good Magic. I said, 'Oh, man. It's going to be a match race from this point on.'"
The rider also indicated Justify got "tired" and may have waited on the field once he got in the clear.
"Although he got tired today, he was also looking around a bit at the end," Smith said. "A bit of greenness came out today, but he also got pushed pretty hard early on."
For Tenfold's trainer, Steve Asmussen, the third-place effort was encouraging enough for him to take the next step.
"Absolutely," Asmussen said when asked if Winchell Thoroughbreds' homebred Curlin colt would take on Justify in the Belmont Stakes (G1) with a Triple Crown on the line. "Heck yes."
Tenfold, who made just his fourth start in the Preakness and finished fifth in the April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1), his stakes debut, raced in sixth early and appeared to get the jump on Bravazo for second but was passed late.
"When he came out of the fog, he was game," Asmussen said. "I'd say he got beat three-quarters of a length for all of it. He's a top-class horse who is getting better. We were three-quarters of a length away from where we want to be. Let's figure out how to get it."
Lukas also indicated Bravazo could return in three weeks at Belmont Park.
"You never know, but I think he'll bounce back pretty good," Lukas said. "We've got three weeks. I'm pretty confident he'll be OK."
A length behind Good Magic came Lone Sailor, who was followed by Sporting Chance, Diamond King, and Quip to complete the order of finish. Quip, who raced in fourth early on and crossed the wire 33 1/4 lengths behind Diamond King, came out of the race without apparent issue, according to his connections.
"It looked like we had a good trip, but he just stopped," said trainer Rodolphe Brisset. "We were in a good position. It looks like he came back OK."
The victory was Baffert's seventh in the Preakness, which moves him into a tie with trainer R. W. Walden for most in the classic. Justify has a flawless record from five starts, with $2,998,000 in earnings. He was bred in Kentucky by John Gunther out of the Ghostzapper mare Stage Magic and was a $500,000 Keeneland September yearling sale graduate from Gunther's Glennwood Farm consignment.
"Since the first time we worked him, raced him at Santa Anita, and when he broke his maiden, we've always known," Baffert said. "We were pretty confident we had something really, really special. Something like American Pharoah , something like Arrogate —they're freaky horses, just like all the greats."
Video: Preakness S. (G1)