Sunday, May 20, 2018

Derby? check; Preakness? check; Belmont???

Since before the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert stressed how important a sharp break away from the starting gate would be to the future success his chestnut beast, Justify.

Baffert repeated the mantra prior to Preakness 143. He knew before the Derby he had the best horse and just wanted to have an uncompromised opportunity to prove it. And the consensus of his rivals agreed with Baffert’s assessment.

Justify is a superior talent; He was--and still remains--the horse they must all beat three weeks hence.

In the lead-up to Preakness, most analysts agreed that the Classics’ second leg rated as a two-horse race on paper. Justify v Good Magic: “The Rematch.”

Justify, extremely light on his feet for such a big, powerfully built colt, showed that he’s a superior wet-track performer, getting away from the barrier cleanly and quickly once again.

So comfortable was Justify that he probably would have loved to join those Preakness infield revelers who cheerfully chose to dive head-first, belly-flopping their way across mud that had been building for five long days.

As for Justify’s main rival, his fate was sealed at the break, too. Good Magic broke sharply and indeed gained an advantage in the early going. But in his case, that good news also turned out to be the bad news.

The sharp break virtually eliminated Good Magic's chance to avenge his Derby defeat. When no one else attempted to go for the lead, Jose Ortiz, who promised to turn the Preakness into a match race if need be “because you can’t give Justify an inch,” did just that.

It was exactly the wrong tactic. Battling head to head from the inside under match-race conditions most often is a prescription for defeat--the inside horse invariable feels more pressure when an outside rival makes it a speed battle.

This is not to suggest that Good Magic would have won the match within the Preakness had he drawn outside in the head-to-head matchup. Justify is the superior horse who will win a match race with Good Magic every time.

In demonstrating the class needed to withstand two later challenges, Justify remained undefeated and gave Baffert a chance at his second sweep in three years and for his horse to join Seattle Slew in the pantheon of undefeated Triple Crown champions.

I don’t know if defending Eclipse champion Ortiz could have made adjustments as the race was unfolding. His only option might have been to wrangle Good Magic back sharply, breaking stride and losing momentum over a track that played kindly to speed all afternoon, albeit mostly sprinting.

Whatever the reason, Good Magic was out if his comfort zone and Justify was not, playing his usual game as pace presser, again emerging with no mud on his face, just like in the Derby, a phenomenal horse showing his superiority.

“He’s the best 3-year-old I’ve ever ridden,” Mike Smith said. “I’ve been blessed to ride some great older horses but, man, at such a young age and having raced only five times, to do what he did is unheard of.”

Said Baffert: “Everyone came and saw a great horse race. Good Magic, I tip my hat to him. He made us really work. He’s a really good horse … It was almost like Sunday Silence and Easy Goer…”

Or like another Classics speed horse, Affirmed, won the Preakness after being stalked by Alydar throughout in 1989, or the aforementioned Seattle Slew, forced to match-race Maryland speedster Cormorant into defeat in 1977.

But Baffert was anxious. “[Good Magic] was going to make us earn it and I wasn’t liking it down the backside. Justify had to gut it out. It’s good for these horses. It’s the first time he’s really had to lay it down, and he came through.

“These great horses, they just define themselves when they get in that situation and today he showed not only is he a big, beautiful, gorgeous horse, he is all racehorse, and that’s what it took to win today.”

Meanwhile, Good Magic's trainer, Chad Brown, was unhappy given the Preakness speed scenario. "I didn't want the horse on the lead,” Brown said.

"The post didn't help. 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. And he was following us.”

And following from very close range. Indeed, Justify seemed to hold the slightest advantage while outside all the way around. How many horses racing on the inside in this circumstances win? One, two, out of 10?

Good Magic had 2-1/2 lengths to make up from the Derby and did manage to cut the losing margin down by more than half, defeated by a length: He finished fourth, beaten by a half-length and two necks for all of it.

But Good Magic was beaten on the square by a better horse. However, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try him again, only this time while racing on his terms; a stalker, not a speed horse. Trips and dynamics dictate outcomes.

I had suggested to Brown that Good Magic’s best chance to reverse the Derby decision was to perhaps surprise Justify with a bold mid-race move to command, taking Justify out of his comfort zone. Perhaps next time.

It probably would not have altered the result but it might have. The one certainty is that he needs to try something new instead of chasing from close range or dueling. And the two never had met on a fast track, so there’s that.

Good Magic will not run in the Belmont but likely neither will Quip who never had a chance to show what he could do in his first race on a wet track.

But what about Audible? Will Winstar, et al, give Todd Pletcher the green light to run him in the Belmont against one of their own, a Triple Crown aspirant? Pletcher will not be on the sidelines; Derby wide-tripper Vino Rosso is scheduled to run.

At the moment, Bravazo and Tenfold are expected to soldier on from the Preakness; Lone Sailor’s schedule is undecided. Brown said before the Preakness that, win or lose, there would be no Belmont for the juvenile champ.

The “Test of the Champion” is scheduled to attract Derby participant Hofburg, Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen, European sensation Gronkowski, along with “possible” at this writing, including Audible, Free Drop Billy, good Derby fifth My Boy Jack and Solomini. There will be more in advance of Belmont 150, so stay tuned.

New York, racing biggest equine circus will be coming to town in three weeks. Start spreading the news.

Written by John Pricci

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