After Justify's all-out effort to eke out a victory in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, it's harder than ever to answer the question: Can he come back again in three weeks' time to win the Belmont Stakes and nail down the Triple Crown?
The Preakness, of course, anchored weekend Thoroughbred racing around the world, although there was some exciting action in Japan and England.
And the undercard at Pimlico, despite the gosh-awful weather, produced some potential stars like Mitole, Irish War Cry, Ax Man, Happy Like a Fool and others.
But, as is our wont, we start with:
The Triple Crown
It was tough to see through the rain and dense fog at Old Hilltop but Justify seemed to be all out as he battled Good Magic through most of the Preakness, then really needed the wire to preserve a 1/2-length victory over Bravazo, a colt he beat by 8 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. Tenfold and Lone Sailor also were gaining ground through the Pimlico slop.
The possibilities are: 1) It was just an off day for Justify, who remains undefeated in five starts, or 2) he's been worn down by the pressure of the Triple Crown trail and won't have enough stuffing left for the Belmont's demanding 1 1/2 miles.
"He got a little tired," jockey Mike Smith admitted. "This is the hardest race that he's had ... 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."
Trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday morning Justify was looking "bright" after the Preakness experience and compared him to world champion sprinter Usain Bolt. "He was in all those Olympics," Baffert said of the human runner. "But we still wanted to see him, see if he still has it. I think the Triple Crown is about, let's see if he still has it."
The white-haired trainer knows whereof he speaks. Four times previously he has gone to Belmont Park with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Silver Charm finished second to Touch Gold in 1997, Real Quiet endured an excruciating, last-jump loss to Victory Gallop in 1998 and War Emblem was eighth in the 2002 Belmont. American Pharoah finally broke through in 2015.
And so we shall, in three weeks' time, see if Justify "still has it." Baffert has compared the colt favorably to "Pharoah," for what that's worth.
Bravazo and Tenfold are among those expected to join the Belmont field and they will have an extra quarter mile-plus to see what they can do.
Elsewhere on Preakness weekend:
Irish War Cry went right to the front in Friday's $300,000 Grade III Pimlico Special and rolled home an easy winner, finishing 4 1/2 lengths to the good of One Liner. Untrapped was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Irish War Cry, a 4-year-old son of Curlin, ran 1 3/8 miles in the slop in 1:55.51 with Jose Ortiz up for trainer Graham Motion.
Irish War Cry scored his first win since last year's Wood Memorial but also finished second in the Belmont Stakes, caught late by Tapwrit. He has struggled since.
"I just wanted to get him back on track and I feel like today we did that," Motion said. "It was important to me. This horse shows so much in the morning and it's so frustrating to see him run disappointedly in the afternoons." He said he has not planned the rest of Irish War Cry's campaign.
In Saturday's $100,000 LARC Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, Ax Man showed Baffert's stock of 3-year-olds may begin with Justify but doesn't end there. Ax Man, a Misremembered colt, shipped from California as the winner of two of his three starts and promptly dismantled a field of six, leading all the way to a 6 3/4-lengths score. Title Ready and Prince Lucky collected the minor awards. Ax Man ran 1 1/16 miles through the slop in 1:42.53 with Mike Smith getting a feel of the track in the race immediately preceding the Preakness.
Ax Man was a Triple Crown candidate after winning his first start on New Year's Day by 9 1/2 lengths with a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. But he followed that with a fourth-place finish, beaten 16 lengths, in the Grade II San Vicente and Baffert took the more cautious approach thereafter. The Hal Earnhardt homebred returned with an 8 1/2-lengths victory on April 8.
Red Ruby tracked the early speed of Coach Rocks in Friday's $250,000 Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico, came to the lead at the top of the lane despite being floated wide, then kicked away to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Coach Rocks held second, 5 lengths ahead of Indy Union. The favorite, Sara Street, finished fourth, beaten 14 1/2 lengths. Red Ruby, a Tiznow filly, finished the sloppy 9 furlongs in 1:50.17 with Paco Lopez aboard.
Red Ruby broke her maiden on the second try last fall at Churchill Downs, then won the Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park before finishing fourth in the Grade III Honeybee in her last start. "We knew she liked the off going," said winning trainer Kellyn Gorder. "In the Honeybee she got really hot in the post parade, so I trained her this morning. That's just about the only thing I did different."
Gorder said he's aiming for the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga. "How we get there, I'm not sure."
At Arlington Park, Princess La Quinta rallied through the final furlong to win Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Matron for fillies and mares by 1 length over pacesetter Daddy's Boo. The favorite, Con Te Partiro, advanced late to get show money. Princess La Quinta, a 4-year-old Quality Road filly, got 9 furlongs on the all-weather course in 1:49.69. It was her first graded stakes win and also the first for trainer and part-owner James Gulick. "We hoped that she would win a stake for us someday and it never dawned on me that she would win a graded stake, and it never occurred to me that she would win here at Arlington, which is a place I love so much," Gulick said. "I couldn't be happier."
Song of Spring took full advantage of a pace duel on the front end in Friday's $150,000 Grade III Allaire DuPont Distaff at Pimlico, rallying from last of eight to catch the favorite, Blue Prize, for a 1/2-length win. Blue Prize, after contesting the pace, settled for second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Fuhriously Kissed. Song of Spring, a 4-year-old daughter of Spring at Last, finished ran 9 furlongs over the sloppy track in 1:51.10. Ricardo Santana Jr. had the mount for trainer Neil Howard.
Miss Mo Mentum rallied from last of eight in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Grade III Selene Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Woodbine, worked through some traffic and just did defeat the favorite, Dixie Moon, by a neck. Safe to Say also unleashed a late, but less effective, rally and finished third, another 5 3/4 lengths in arrears. Miss Mo Mentum, an Uncle Mo filly, got 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track with Patrick Husbands in the irons in 1:42.36. She had failed in two graded stakes at Gulfstream Park this winter but seemed more at home back at Woodbine.
We could have another sprint star on our hands in the form of Mitole, who ran to his notices as the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $200,000 Chick Lang Stakes for 3-year-olds at Pimlico. The Eskenderea colt, who won his two previous starts by open lengths at Oaklawn Park, surged quickly to the lead under Ricardo Santana Jr. and opened up, winning by 6 1/4 lengths. Still Having Fun was next-best with Clouded Judgement getting show money at long odes. Mitole ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.29 over the sloppy track -- just 0.29 seconds outside the track record set by Northern Wolf in 1990.
"He's fast. Wow, he's a special horse," Asmussen said. "His confidence level has gotten better. Just the way he comes into a race and acts during it has been spectacular the past two or three races." The trainer said he hopes to move Mitole along to the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont Park June 9.
Switzerland emerged from a brief speed duel in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Maryland Sprint at Pimlico to lead the rest of the way. Long Haul Bay finished second, 3 1/2 lengths back, with Lewisfield third. Switzerland, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt, ran the same 6 furlongs as Mitole handled one race earlier in 1:09.43 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons. The Steve Asmussen trainee took eight tries to find the winners' Circle and now has won four in a row.
"He came into the barn a fast horse and we've been able to maintain that," Asmussen said. "I think the key to today's race was him being able to get away with going 22 4/5 the first quarter ... I think with a win in a race like this, we will regroup and see what's out there for older sprint horses and take a big swing."
Filly & Mare Sprint
One of trainer Wesley Ward's Royal Ascot prospects, Happy Like a Fool, did nothing to hurt her chances with an emphatic win in Friday's $150,000 Grade III Adena Springs Miss Preakness for 3-year-old fillies at Pimlico. The Distorted Humor miss, second last year in the Group 2 Queen Anne, fought for the lead in Friday's tilt and, once there, drew off easily. Artistic Diva was 6 1/2 length adrift in second with Buy Sell Hold third and the favorite, Good Move, sixth. Happy Like a Fool ran 6 furlongs in the slop in 1:10.12 with Tyler Gaffalione riding.
"She broke really well," Gaffalione said of Happy Like a Fool. "I just chased her out of there to get position. When I asked her at the top of the lane, she really responded. Wesley did a good job of having her ready."
Vertical Oak pressed the pace made by the favorite, Ms Locust Point, in Friday's $100,000 Skipat Stakes for fillies and mares, answered the question near the top of the lane and drove home first by 1 1/2 lengths. Startwithsiver was along late to finish second, 1/2 length in front of Ms Locust Point. Vertical Oak, a 4-year-old filly by Giant Oak, got 6 furlongs over the sloppy track in 1:10.35 under Ricardo Santana Jr.
"She's run super races on an off racetrack," trainer Steve Asmussen said of Vertical Oak. "The draw was great for her and so was the result. She won the Miss Preakness here last year and this was the target. We hope she has a very good year. And now she'll likely head to New York."
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Dixie at Pimlico shaped up as a top-shelf event until it came off the turf and half the field, including odds-on favorite Word Approval, decided to sit it out. Of the four left to contest the event on the sloppy main track, it was Fire Away coming from last to first, winning by 3/4 length over Unbridled Juan. Just Howard and O Dionysius completed the order of finish as Fire Away won in 1:43.92 with Manny Franco riding. Fire Away and Just Howard are both proven on the turf. The other two are less familiar with the green course.
Vettori Kin raced patiently in mid-field through the final turn in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs, came three wide into the lane and got by the leaders to score by 2 1/2 lengths. Harlan Strong and Bronson were the trifecta fillers with the favorite, Some in Tieme, missing show money by a head with a belated bid. Vettori Kin, a Brazilian-bred 5-year-old, got 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:30.14 with Julien Leparoux in the irons for trainer Kenny McPeek. "When we turned for home I had a lot of horse still left underneath me and he really responded well in the stretch," Leparoux said.
Filly & Mare Turf
The $150,000 Grade III Gallorette for fillies and mares was the only race contested on the turf at rain-soaked Pimlico Saturday and Ultra Brat seemed to appreciate the conditions. After stalking the pace, the 5-year-old Uncle Mo mare hit another gear and drew off to win by 10 1/4 lengths. French import Blessed Silence was second, 3/4 length ahead of Brooks House. The favorite, Elysea's World, was fourth. Ultra Brat, with Jose Ortiz aboard, ran 1 1/16 miles on turf rated soft in 1:53.72.
Imprimis ran his career score to 4-for-4 with a 5 1/4-lengths victory in Friday's $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint at Pimlico. The Broken Vow gelding, who won his first three starts at Gulfstream Park, staked the early pace and then easily went to the front and drew off, finishing 5 furlongs on soft turf in 1:03.81, reflecting the condition of the course. Rocket Heat was second and Oak Bluffs third as the field scratched down from 10 to five before post time.
Girls Know Best shrugged off the surface switch from turf to slop in Saturday's $100,000 The Very One Stakes for fillies and mares at Pimlico, tracking the pace over the sloppy main track before taking over to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Pretty Perfection was best of the rest with Anna's Bandit a long shot third. Girls Know Best, a 4-year-old filly by Caleb's Posse, ran 5 furlongs in 57.00 seconds with Javier Castellano handling the reins. "If she wants to go to the lead she can," Castellano said. "But today they were going fast and my goal was to save something for the end and that's what happened. She finished really strong."
The bad weather that zapped Pimlico got Belmont Park, too, and Saturday's $100,000 Soaring Softly Stakes for 3-year-old fillies was forced off the grass onto the sloppy main track. After four scratches, five ran with Nootka Sound emerging the winner, 4 lengths to the good of Elevenses. It was another 9 3/4 lengths back to Strategic Dreams in third. Nootka Sound, a Lonhro filly, finished the 7 furlongs in 1:24.59 with Dylan Davis up.
Souper Striking was out and winging in Friday's $100,000 Hilltop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Pimlico, opened up when asked by jockey Julien Pimentel and ran on to win by 6 1/2 lengths. Secret Message was second, 4 lengths ahead of Peach of a Gal. Souper Striking, a daughter of Brilliant Speed, sped 1 mile over soft turf in 1:51.72. After two early-season wins at Gulfstream Park, Souper Striking finished a fading ninth in the Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs, then got a rest until Friday's race.
On the international front:
Rhododendron had all she could do, and did just enough, to come away with the win in Saturday's Group 1 Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newmarket. With Ryan Moore up, the 4-year-old Galileo filly put a nose in front of Lightning Spear on the final jump of the 1-mile contest. Her stablemate, Lancaster Bomber, was 2 3/4 lengths back in third after helping set the pace, followed by Dutch Connection and Deauville. Rhododendron finished in 1:35.07.
Rhododendron was pulled up in the Group 1 Prix de Diane Longine last June after bleeding terribly in the extreme heat. She returned to win the Group 1 Prix de l'Opera at Chantilly before finishing second to Wuheida in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar. She opened her 4-year-old campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Group 1 Prix Ganay at the new ParisLongchamp.
"She is a Group 1 winner at 2, 3 and now 4," Moore said. "She has had an incredible career and, after what happened to her in the French Oaks, it's a massive turnaround from Aidan and the team."
Trainer Aidan O'Brien said he will "have a good chat with Ryan and obviously the lads (the Coolmore owners) always talk after the races to see what they want to do close to Ascot." The options seem to be the Queen Anne at 1 mile or the Prince of Wales's Stakes at 1 1/4 miles.
Also on Saturday at Newmarket, Moore rode Crystal Ocean to a very comfortable, 6-lengths victory in the Group 3 Al Rayyan Stakes for trainer Sir Michael Stoute. Crystal Ocean, a 4-year-old Sea the Stars colt, was in the frame in several important fixtures last season, winding up with a second in the Group 1 William Hill St Leger.
"We came here today expecting to win. He is a very consistent, progressive and versatile horse," Sir Michael said of Crystal Ocean. "He is in the Prince Of Wales's and the Hardwicke at Royal Ascot, plus the Eclipse. We will work it out what will suit him best, but won't decide on a target today."
Almond Eye rallied late but confidently to a 2-length victory in Sunday's Yushun Himba or Japanese Oaks at Tokyo Racecourse, landing the second leg of the Japanese fillies' Triple Crown.
Almond Eye, a daughter of Lord Kanaloa out of the Sunday Silence mare Fusaichi Pandora, repeated her impressive performance in the Group 1 Oka Sho April 8 and now eyes a sweep series, which concludes with the Group 1 Shuka Sho Oct. 14 at Kyoto.
Jockey Christophe Lemaire, who celebrated his 39th birthday by winning the race for the second straight year, kept Almond Eye forward in the main back through most of the 2,400 meters, not asking the filly for run until she turned for home.
At that point, Almond Eye quickly put the matter to rest. Lily Noble held off Lucky Lilac for second. Almond Eye finished the 2,400 meters, about 1 1/2 miles, in 2:23.8, just 0.2 second off the stakes record established in 2015 by Gentildonna, who also was the last to complete the Triple Crown sweep.
"I had every confidence in her and race went perfectly for us," said Lemaire, who celebrated both his second straight Yushun Himba win and his 39th birthday. "She was a little hyped up but we had a good start and in a good position. From there she settled in well and her turn of foot in the home straight was terrific."
Lemaire said Almond Eye's first time going 2,400 meters "was absolutely no problem for her. She is one special filly with great potential and fit to face international competition if she has the chance."
Jockey championships matter more in some jurisdictions than in others and in few places more than Hong Kong, where the riders compete head-to-head twice a week in a mostly closed environment and wagering is offered on jockey performance each racing day.
So the excitement among local punters was ratcheted up a notch when Zac Purton tallied four winners on the day Sunday at Sha Tin, moving the Aussie to 104 wins on the season. That's now just four shy of Joao "Magic Man" Moreira, who was blanked.
"It's exciting for us as racing fans and exciting for the two boys," said trainer Caspar Fownes, who legged up Purton on three of Sunday's winners. "Both Joao and Zac have been riding for me, but recently Zac has probably ridden for me more. The rides are there for both jockeys, though, so whoever wants the rides can have them."
In other North American action:
Cordiality, with Gary Stevens back in town for the ride, inched away in the stretch run to win Saturday's $100,000 Fran's Valentine Stakes for California-bred fillies and mares. Shy Carmelita was 1 3/4 lengths shy of the winner with Cheekaboo another 3 lengths back in third. Cordiality, a 5-year-old daughter of Papa Clem, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.78. Stevens picked up the mount from Tyler Baze, who was injured in an earlier spill. "I was so glad to hear that Tyler is okay and I know he's looking forward to getting back on this mare," said Stevens, who spent the early part of the year at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Scotty's Model tracked pacesetting Code Warrior into the turn in Sunday's $100,000 Ballade Stakes for Ontario-sired fillies and mares, then edged clear in the stretch to win by 2 lengths over that rival. Sparkles' Girl was up for third. Scotty's Model, an 8-year-old mare by Mr. Scotty, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.49 with Rafael Hernandez up.
Tap Daddy dueled for the early lead in Saturday's off-the-turf $100,000 James W. Murphy Stakes for 3-year-olds, then kicked in the Evenrudes, splashing away to a 6 1/2-lengths win. Threes Over Deuces and Takedown completed the 3-T trifecta. Tap Daddy, a Scat Daddy colt out of the Tapit mare Easy Tap, ran 1 1/16 miles on the sloppy main track in 1:43.63 for jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.
Drop Dead Red gained a short lead early in the stretch run in Saturday's $60,000 Politely Stakes for fillies and mares and held off the late-running favorite, Party Vote, for a 1/2-length victory. Trace of Grace was third. Drop Dead Red, a 5-year-old daughter of Hold Me Back, ran 1 mile on a sloppy track in 1:39.00 with Paco Lopez in the irons. The race, like so many on the East Coast, was moved from the turf after heavy rains.
Golden Gate Fields
Tortosa rallied from last of five to win Sunday's $75,000 Alcatraz Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3/4 length over Unpossible. Respect the Hustle was third and the favorite, Ayacara, beat only Bronze Warrior. Tortosa, a Cape Blanco colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:37.48 with Catalino Martinez aboard.
Stormy Embrace prompted the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Musical Romance Stakes for Florida-bred fillies and mares, edged to the front and won by 1/2 length despite jockey Wilmer Garcia misjudging the finish line and standing in the irons 70 yards before the finish. Sweet Tooth Haven was second and Yes I'll Go was along for third. Stormy Embrace, a 4-year-old daughter of Circular Quay, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.33.
Noblame took the outside path and outfinished the favorite, Moonlit Song, by 3/4 length in Saturday's $50,000 Fancy Buckles Stakes for West Virginia-bred fillies and mares. Remy's Rocket was 1 1/2 lengths further back in third. Noblame, a 3-year-old daughter of Blame, ran 4 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy track in 52.00 seconds.
Mr. Jagermeister, the odds-on favorite, easily ran away from five rivals in Saturday's $50,000 10,000 Lakes Stakes for Minnesota-breds, winning by 8 1/2 furlongs. Hot Shot Kid was best of the rest, 3 lengths in front of Smooth Chiraz. Mr. Jagermeister, a 3-year-old colt by Atta Boy Roy, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.81 with Leandro Goncalves in the irons.
Pinup Girl tracked the early speed in Saturday's $50,000 Lady Slipper for state-bred distaffers, came three wide down the lane and prevailed by 2 lengths over Ta Kela Warning. Shipmate was third and the odds-on favorite, Honey's Sox Appeal, got home fourth. Pinup Girl, a 4-year-old daughter of Stephen Got Even, finished in 1:12.37 under Santiago Gonzalez.
My Sister Madi rallied three wide to the lead in Friday's $60,000 Mamie Eisenhower Stakes for Iowa-bred fillies and mares and edged away to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Zella Rose. Theperfectvow was third and the odds-on favorite, Dreamin, finished fifth. My Sister Madi, a 4-year-old Haynesfield filly, toured 6 furlongs over a fast track in 1:10.84 with Alex Birzer up.
Scrutinizer worked to the lead on the turn in Saturday's $60,000 John Wayne Stakes for state-breds and kicked away to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Han Sense. It was another 3/4 lengths back to Itsallaboutyou in third. Scrutinizer, a 5-year-old Native Ruler gelding, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.74 with Glenn Corbett riding.
Ima Happy Cat exchanged bumps at the start of Sunday's $50,000 Seattle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, tracked the pace and took over in the lane en route to a 2 1/2-lengths win over the favorite, Bella Mia. Brilliant Bird finished third. Ima Happy Cat, a Smiling Tiger filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.68 with Rocco Bowen in the irons.
Lone Star Park
Direct Dial pressed the pace in Sunday's $65,000 Stymie Division of the Texas Stallion Stakes for qualified 3-year-old colts and geldings, moved when asked by jockey Iram Diego and held off the even-money favorite, Galactic, by 1 1/2 lengths at the end. Swift Shock was far back in third. Direct Dial, a Too Much Bling colt, ran 1 mile on a muddy track in 1:39.37.
Trooper John pressed the pace in Saturday's $50,000 (Canadian) Journal Handicap, challenged for the lead at the quarter pole and then repelled a late effort by Born in a Breeze to prevail by 1/2 length. Killin Me Smalls was another 4 1/2 lengths back in third. Trooper John, a 4-year-old Colonel John gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.29 with Rigo Sarmiento up.