(Reuters) - Unbeaten Justify charged clear through the fog to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, as the Kentucky Derby winner set the stage for a Triple Crown bid next month.
The heavily favored three-year-old chestnut colt overcame a lengthy initial challenge from Good Magic on a sloppy track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to add to his Churchill Downs triumph with a fifth victory in as many races.
A hard-charging Bravazo finished second and Tenfold was third as Good Magic faded to fourth toward the end of the 1 3/16 mile (9.5 furlongs) dirt track race.
A victory in the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 9 would earn trainer Bob Baffert his second U.S. thoroughbred racing Triple Crown in four years after American Pharoah achieved the feat in 2015.
“He’s just a great horse, to handle all that pressure and keep on running,” Baffert told NBC of Justify after winning his seventh Preakness. “I’m so happy that we got it done. I’ve never had one run that fast here.”
Jockey Mike Smith was equally as elated.
“Unbelievable. It’s a dream come true, to be honest with you,” Smith said after the race.
“It’s been 25 years since I was blessed to win my first (Triple Crown race), which was here, and to go into it with Bob and (Baffert’s wife) Jill and the whole crew... I’m just so blessed to be riding for these people right now.
“I’m on cloud nine.”
Good Magic set out to challenge from the start, and the two raced neck-and-neck for much of the race with the Kentucky Derby runner-up even taking the lead at times.
“It was like they had their own private match race,” Baffert added.
Justify, who became the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year-old, finally broke free of Good Magic, only to be challenged by Bravazo and Tenfold down the home stretch.
“Good Magic, he really made us work,” Baffert said. “That’s a really good horse.”
Justify, whose five races have come in 91 days, showed no ill effects from a bruise to the colt’s left hind heel, likely incurred while racing on the wet surface at the Derby.
As for his chances of joining American Pharoah as a Triple Crown winner, Baffert remains optimistic.
“He’s talented and he is right there, but he has really got to work for it.”
Before American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, no horse had won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in consecutive races since Affirmed in 1978
Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by John O'Brien