SNIDER: Justify's Triple Crown reign isn't automatic

Rick Snider
May 21, 2018 - 4:57 pm
Justify_Preakness_Stakes

Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

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Justify emerged from the dense fog on the final turn with a slight lead in the Preakness Stakes. Jockey Mike Smith then eliminated doubt, urging the Kentucky Derby winner one victory closer to the Triple Crown championship by quickly pulling away from the field.

Justify won, but the frantic close by three rivals makes the colt's chances in the Belmont Stakes on June 9 somewhat questionable. The coming 1½-mile race that serves as the guardian of Triple Crown will sorely test Justify.

Justify looked like a young colt that won his fifth race in 91 days – tired. The heavy workload showed at the end of both the Derby and Preakness. Yet, the colt’s greatness prevented lackluster finishes from repelling challengers. Still, two races over muddy tracks is tiring and Justify has just three weeks to freshen before the Belmont.

"He got a little tired," Smith said. "This is the hardest race that he’s had, but he was also waiting on competition. It was awful loud out there and the track’s pretty narrow and he was kind of looking and jumping tracks and doing a few things, but it was a good kind of tired. It was that kind of tired I’m hoping, anyway, and I feel like he'll move forward."

Will Justify prove worthy of becoming the 13th Triple Crown champion ever and first since American Pharoah in 2015?

Preakness runner-up Bravazo and third-place finisher Tenfold will enter the Belmont, knowing the longer race gives them a better chance. All they needed in the Preakness was a few more strides to upset the heavy 2-5 favorite. Derby losers Hofburg (seventh), Vino Rosso (ninth) and Free Drop Billy (16th) will enter along with Peter Pan Stakes winner Blended Citizen.

That suspect Preakness finish gives opponents hope. Maybe more than they should have given Justify can seize the early Belmont lead and dictate the pace. The Belmont tends to see a reasonable early pace before sprinting down the nation’s longest stretch of one-half mile.

Many dreams have ended in that stretch. Whether Justify joins the immortals depends on whether the Preakness finish was just an illusion or a tune-up.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks