BALTIMORE -- Minutes before the running of the 143rd Preakness Stakes, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert turned to his wife and three sons in the paddock area of Pimlico and took a confidence gauge.
"How you feeling?" he asked his 13-year-old son, Bode. "You feeling it?"
A tentative, yet affirmative nod.
"Mom's feeling breakfast," deadpanned his wife, Jill.
As they watched the race unfold together on a small TV, Baffert concealed his own emotions behind sunglasses he never took off in spite of a gloomy, foggy day that blanketed Baltimore in a steady mist. He stood with his arms folded across his chest and watched his latest Kentucky Derby winner, Justify, run the most difficult race of his fledgling career. The powerful, undefeated colt was challenged until he moved clear with about 70 yards to go, setting up a very realistic shot at the Triple Crown.
It's Justify's title to lose, but on Saturday, the heavy favorite looked ... well, beatable.
"I was never really relaxed during the race," Baffert said. "I knew he was in for a fight. I knew this was not going to be easy."
Nor will the next step.
Baffert (American Pharoah, 2015) can become the first trainer in history with two Triple Crown winners in less than five years. He adores the horse ("I would love to put a saddle on him and ride him in the Rose Parade if they would let me"), and both Baffert and jockey Mike Smith have compared Justify to American Pharoah. Both agreed, though, that Justify looked tired on Saturday. Baffert conceded Justify had to "really dig deep" to hold off Bravazo by only a half-length at the end.
Baffert 'so relieved' after Justify wins Preakness
Bob Baffert knew that Justify "really had to work at it" to win the Preakness and looks forward to trying to capture the Triple Crown.
Justify has proven to be a good horse. In three weeks, at the Belmont Stakes, we'll find out whether he belongs in the same category as the sport's true greats.
"This is the best 3-year-old I've ever ridden," Smith said. "I've been blessed to have ridden some great older horses. The list goes on, but man, at such a young age, and what's that today? The fifth time? To do what he's done is just unheard of."
Nobody's arguing that. It was just the unconvincing manner in which the horse did it.
Expectations were soaring for Justify after he outran a 20-horse field at the Kentucky Derby on May 5, holding off rival Good Magic by 2 ½ lengths. Justify again went head-to-head with Good Magic soon after the Preakness start and jumped a little bit going around the first turn, slipping a bit on the slick, muddy track.
"Good Magic, he really put it to us," Baffert said. "... They didn't give it away. He was going to make us earn it, and I wasn't liking it down the backside."
Justify disappeared with the pack into the fog down the backstretch.
"I can't see anything," Baffert said to his family.
One of his older boys yelled, "He's making his move!"
The Bafferts roared as Justify emerged from the fog with a slim lead, as Bravazo tried to close the gap. Smith had kept Bravazo at bay by about a half-length but said, "I certainly could have got after him a whole lot more and a lot earlier and made him do a little more. A bit of the greenness came out today," Smith said, "but he also got pushed pretty hard early on."
For those who have doubts about Justify's staying power, Smith and Baffert will both remind you that horse racing's last legendary horse didn't win the Kentucky Derby easily.
"If you remember, American Pharoah, he was all-out, hanging on to win the Derby, and look what he went on to do," Smith said. "Sometimes, if a race like that gets inside of him, it's good. It's not a bad thing sometimes."
Even Seattle Slew raised doubts after a slow ride at the 1977 Kentucky Derby but wound up as a Triple Crown winner and one of the most recognizable names in the history of the sport.
Baffert hasn't shied away from Justify's potential, even comparing him to those past legends.
"Something like an American Pharoah, something special, they're just freaky horses, just like all the greats -- Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid," he said. "Our job is just manage them as well as we can. We have to go back on all my experiences to get him there. One thing about him, he's a big, heavy, strong horse. Races don't knock him out."
Justify became the 31st horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes since 1931. Justify will leave Baltimore around 8:30 a.m. ET on Sunday to go back to Churchill Downs.
"He'll recover so quick," Smith said. "It's crazy. By the next morning, he'll be bucking and playing. We hadn't done much with him in between the Derby, and he hadn't really done a whole lot going into the Derby. He's only run five times."
The sixth race will be even bigger.
It's time for another confidence gauge.