Two days before the 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes, 24-year-old champion jockey Jose Ortiz already had his race strategy in mind.
“Hopefully, someone else goes [to the early lead]. If Justify goes, and I have to be the one putting pressure on him, I will be,” Ortiz told the Maryland Jockey Club press office. “I will have to turn it into a match race. It looks like a match race on paper. You can't give Justify an inch.”
With the field broke from the starting gate into the dense fog that enshrouded Pimlico on Saturday, it wasn't a surprise that the speedy Kentucky Derby winner Justify was going for the lead. What was surprising is that none of the other expected frontrunners chose to go with him.
Good Magic broke sharply, and Ortiz quickly realized that no one else was sending their mounts, leaving Justify alone on the lead. Whether Ortiz chose to challenge Justify or Good Magic refused to rate is up for debate; whatever the reason, the first three-quarters of a mile turned into exactly what Ortiz had predicted – a match race.
“In the first turn, I tried to take him back, I couldn't,” Ortiz told drf.com. “I got past the six-furlong [pole] and that's what I got, I got to deal with it. My horse was very relaxed where he was – good horses go 47-and-change really easy.”
Head and head all the way down the backstretch, Justify and Good Magic were three lengths clear of the rest of the field. Rounding the far turn, Justify began to change gears and Good Magic just couldn't go with him. Despite being headed, Good Magic never quit fighting and ended up finishing fourth, beaten only a length by Justify at the wire.
“I messed up, that wasn't the plan we drew,” Ortiz said, taking the blame for the loss. “I wasn't supposed to be where I was.”
Trainer Chad Brown wasn't happy with the ride, either.
“No, I didn't want the horse on the lead,” said Brown. “I'm disappointed with the trip. The post didn't help. We were inside [Justify] the whole way. Unfortunately, our horse took the worst of it being on the fence and getting pressed the whole way. He's just 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 the track. And he's following us around.”
Brown had stated prior to Saturday's race that no matter the result, he didn't plan to enter Good Magic in the Belmont. The 1 1/2-mile distance didn't suit the e Five Racing-owned colt, he explained.
In the Kentucky Derby, Justify was able to sit just off the lead and easily repelled Good Magic at the top of the stretch. At the wire, Good Magic was 2 1/2-lengths shy of the winner.
Many racing pundits argued that had Justify gotten away with an easy lead, as it appears would have been the case had Ortiz and Good Magic not pressed him early on, the end result still may have been the same. In the Santa Anita Derby, Justify was allowed to dictate his own pace and he defeated the battle-tested Bolt d'Oro with relative ease. It is impossible to test the theory, of course, but it seems Ortiz was stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” when he saw Justify alone on the lead.
“The post really hurt,” Brown said. “When the horse broke so well as he did and you're inside the other horse it doesn't leave the rider with too many choices.
“Obviously, I entered my horse in the race because I thought there was a chance that [Justify] could be beaten and we could win the race. But it just wasn't a good fit. I would have liked to see a different scenario where maybe we were just off the pace a little bit and not being pressed on the fence the whole way. I'm disappointed. “
Since the Belmont is not under consideration, Brown indicated that either the Haskell at Monmouth Park or the Jim Dandy at Saratoga could be target as Good Magic's next starts.
“The horse got in about 9:30 and so far the horse looks good,” Brown said on Sunday morning from his Belmont base. “We put him in a difficult situation in the race and he did the best he could. It was tough circumstances where he was in the race but that's horse racing. He tried hard.”
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