In Belmont Stakes, Justify Might Face Familiar Competition

Justify was back at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Sunday after winning the Preakness Stakes.

BALTIMORE — As Justify was pampered after his hard-fought Preakness Stakes victory on Saturday — his feet were picked and his legs were wrapped while he enjoyed a cool breeze from the fan outside his stall — his team was celebrating nearby with cocktails and cake, swapping stories about the miracle in the mist.

But every party must come to an end, and now the hard work starts up again. Justify’s ownership group — WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing — also owns the third-place Kentucky Derby finisher Audible, perhaps Justify’s biggest foe as he takes aim at becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner and the first since American Pharoah in 2015. My Boy Jack, the fifth-place Derby finisher, is co-owned by Sol Kumin, who also runs Head of Plains.

Elliott Walden, the president and chief executive of WinStar, said the group needed more time to think about whether they wanted to risk spoiling their own Triple Crown party. Kumin said the same.

On Sunday morning, Justify said goodbye to Pimlico Race Course and headed back to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., where he will prepare for the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes on June 9 in New York. He showed no signs of discomfort from a hoof bruise that developed after the Kentucky Derby. Still, there is a long road ahead.

“I don’t see why we wouldn’t go to the Belmont as long as he stays like this,” the trainer Bob Baffert said of his undefeated colt. “He looks good. He looks pretty bright. He ate everything. No foot issues today.”

Already lined up to face Justify are Bravazo and Tenfold, second and third in the Preakness; Blended Citizen, the winner of the Peter Pan Stakes; Hofburg, seventh in the Kentucky Derby; Vino Rosso, ninth in the Derby; and Free Drop Billy, 16th in the Derby.

Justify, ridden by Mike Smith, faced a considerable challenge from the Derby runner-up Good Magic throughout the mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness Stakes. As Justify emerged from the heavy fog and appeared to pull away, Bravazo and Tenfold sneaked up to finish second and third, a neck apart. Good Magic, who is not under consideration for the Belmont, finished a length behind, in fourth.

Baffert equaled the record of 14 victories in Triple Crown races, matching Bravazo’s 82-year-old trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas said he was pleased with the gritty performance by his colt, who improved from his sixth-place finish in the Derby.

“If you can be satisfied with second, I am,” he said. “I’m so competitive that second is not good enough in my mind-set, but having said that, if you can handle second, it was a damn good one.”

Meanwhile, the fate of Pimlico Race Course, which hosted the 143rd running of the race on Saturday, is yet to be decided. The Maryland Stadium Authority is conducting a study, expected to be completed by the end of the year, on the dilapidated racetrack’s ability to serve as the continued home for the Preakness.

The Stronach Group, which owns the racetrack, has strongly hinted at wanting to move the race to Laurel Park, another track it owns that is about halfway between Baltimore and Washington.

Belinda Stronach, the chairwoman and president of the group, said the company was committed to racing in Maryland and that the goal was to race year-round at one venue and attract big events, like the Breeders’ Cup.

“We continue to invest and make the repairs necessary for the structure,” Stronach said of Pimlico. “We also are cooperating with the Maryland Stadium Authority, and we look forward to what they have to say, and that will help inform where we go in the future.”

Now all eyes will be on the Belmont Stakes, which will again have a capped attendance of 90,000 after California Chrome’s failed attempt to claim a Triple Crown in 2014 drew 102,199 people, many of whom were left unsatisfied because of long lines at concession stands and betting windows, a lack of food and drinks late in the day, and post-race transportation blunders.

Baffert tried and failed to pull off Triple Crown sweeps with the Derby and Preakness winners Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. But in 2015, he guided American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown victory in 37 years, delighting die-hard and casual racing fans alike.

“I did have a goal to win the Triple Crown,” he said. “It felt a little empty. When somebody would go for the Triple Crown, I had to see all my losses repeated over and over and over.”

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