May 25, 2018

Like some legends before, Justify finding few challengers for Preakness

Justify sports the garland of roses as the rain continues to pour down after he won the 144th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 5, 2018 (c) Churchill Downs/Coady Photography

In the aftermath of a tour de force victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1), very few are in a hurry to take on Justify again. In two weeks anyway.

Contraction between the Derby and the Preakness (G1) is an annual given. It’s just a matter of how much there is.

As expected, losses by all four of trainer Todd Pletcher’s Derby starters has him looking at either the Belmont Stakes (G1) or a freshening for his quartet. It’s generally Derby or bust whether any representing the “Todd Squad” will wheel back in two weeks.

Unfortunately for the folks at Pimlico, that eliminates the winners of the Florida Derby (G1), Arkansas Derby (G1), Wood Memorial (G2), and Louisiana Derby (G2) from consideration. Then again, Noble Indy (Louisiana Derby) and Magnum Moon (Arkansas Derby) fared too poorly in the Derby to warrant staying on the classic trail.

The hard-luck Instilled Regard, My Boy Jack, and Hofburg are also reportedly taking a pass. On the other hand, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, who has rarely turned down an opportunity to enjoy the Pimlico hospitality he’s loved so much since winning his first Preakness in 1980, is expected to be there with Derby sixth-place finisher Bravazo and the aptly-named Sporting Chance.

A few other names have been floated in the 48 hours since the Derby was run, none with the exception of Derby runner-up Good Magic a seemingly plausible threat to upset Justify, who appears to have done a tremendous job of “scaring them off.”

We’re still more than a week away from entries be taken for the Preakness, though. Recall that the Maryland Jockey Club rounded up 11 rivals to face Big Brown in the 2008 Preakness, only one of which had faced him at Churchill Downs. The Derby winner was sent off at 1-5 and won like it. However, what could have been a dull betting affair turned out well for clever exotics players who were rewarded with payouts of $36.60 ($2 Exacta), $336.80 ($2 Trifecta), and $1,192.30 ($1 Trifecta) keying the favorite on top.

The last time a field of seven or less started was in 1986, when the market was tightly split between favorite Badger Land, eventual winner Snow Chief, Derby winner Ferdinand, and Broad Brush. Typically, though, it’s been the presence of one or two standouts that have kept the Preakness field size down.

The smallest Preakness field in the color television era was in 1979, when only four were mustered to face Spectacular Bid. It was a select group, too. All had competed in the Derby, and all but one eventually won at Grade 1 level (the exception was a future Grade 2 winner). Nonetheless, Spectacular Bid still romped by more than six lengths at odds of 1-10.

It’s a different era now, and most of the other heavy hitters in the division are content to wait five weeks to potentially take their next shot at Justify, who still has 1 3/16 miles to negotiate in Baltimore.

It’s best not to get ahead of ourselves in regards to how many rivals Justify will need to defeat on May 19 or to think the race is a near gimmee. Still, it’s better to be in a position like Spectacular Bid was four decades ago than not.

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