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Derby champ Justify is early Preakness favorite, but he's far from sure thing

| Saturday, May 12, 2018, 7:12 p.m.
LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 05:  Justify #7, ridden by jockey Mike Smith crosses the finish line to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 05: Justify #7, ridden by jockey Mike Smith crosses the finish line to win the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — The Preakness, the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, is historically a less crowded affair, with fewer horses in the field and more money focused on the favorites.

Three years ago, after a win in the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah got 9-10 odds at the Preakness' post time. Affirmed, another Triple Crown winner, was a 1-2 favorite in 1978. Secretariat won gamblers just 30 cents for every final dollar bet at Pimlico Race Course in 1973.

Of course, so would have a bay stallion named Riva Ridge the year before. As a 2-year-old, Riva Ridge won an Eclipse Award. In 1972 came a wire-to-wire, 11-length victory in the Derby as the favorite. Two weeks later, heavy rains fell overnight in Baltimore, and Riva Ridge didn't much like the mud. He finished fourth in a seven-horse Preakness field. An easy win in the Belmont Stakes only added to his mystique.

History has always preceded the arrival of the reigning Derby champion in Maryland, a well-worn reminder there is no such thing as a sure thing. Justify is this year's early Preakness favorite, undefeated in four races, the last a convincing win May 5 at Churchill Downs. But there are hard truths for those seeking (and seeing) easy money.

“Yes, (the field) can beat him,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has two Preakness entrants. “But it's going to be very difficult. But you have to look back down the years. Who would have thought Barbaro would have got beat? Who would have thought Fusaichi Pegasus would have got beat? ... It's (Justify's) race to lose. But you can't mail it in.”

Since 2005, every Derby winner but two has entered the Preakness' post time as the favorite. The only exceptions: Mine That Bird (6.6-1 odds), the eventual runner-up in 2009 to favorite Rachel Alexandra, and I'll Have Another (3.2-1), who topped Bodemeister in 2012.

Altogether, Derby winners over the past 20 years have fared well in the Triple Crown's shortest race. Eight have won a second consecutive trophy, four have placed second and two have finished third.

“When you feel like you really have the horse, you just don't want to mess it up, because you don't know if you'll ever be back again,” Justify trainer Bob Baffert said Thursday.

This will be the hall of famer's fifth Preakness with a Derby winner. The previous four — Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem and American Pharoah — all left Pimlico with a shot at the Triple Crown.

Lukas has trained four Derby winners and five Preakness champions himself. But only one, 1999 Horse of the Year Charismatic, won both legs. He knows that, above all, a horse must be tough or that two-week turnaround is liable to “jump up and bite you,” he said.

“You can't have one of these what I call ‘soft horses,' ” he said. “When you come out of the Derby, you've got to have a blue-collar, tough horse.”

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