The Sunday after Justify withstood a punishing Kentucky Derby (G1) pace, and defied the “Apollo curse” as a Derby winner who was unraced at two, hopes were raised that here was a Triple Crown-caliber performer. Following a much narrower scrape home in Saturday’s Preakness (G1), however, social media reactions suggest that the unbeaten colt is looking more vulnerable in the June 9 Belmont (G1). Maybe I’m whistling past the graveyard, but I retain my optimism about Justify’s chances of a Triple Crown sweep. And it boils down to how I interpret the Preakness. Before going into my reasoning, let’s state the case against Justify. For a brilliant colt who’s racked up triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings in his first four starts, the fact that he dropped to a 98 in the Preakness is a concern. That becomes more of a red flag when you see a declining pattern from a peak of 114 in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) to a 102 in the Kentucky Derby, and now his lowest yet. Speed figure aficionados may well prognosticate that Justify is about to crater, as our own Ed DeRosa implied by his tweet of the developing “0-2-X” pattern. Also, for the first time in his brief career, Justify did not establish separation from the field at Pimlico. He endured a protracted duel, and struck the front, but without much of a cushion. You could argue that the wire came in the nick of time to save him from the late rush of Bravazo. In any event, he made much harder work of it than most expected from the prohibitive 2-5 favorite who’d won his first four races by a combined total of 21 1/2 lengths. Viewed as bare metrics, the BRIS Speed rating and half-length margin, in a bunched-up finish, could portend that Justify is hitting the downside of the parabola. It’s only natural in the wake of an exceptionally rapid climb. My contention is that those bare metrics need to be put into context. The circumstances of the Preakness, in combination with Justify’s own learning curve, suggest that we can interpret his performance in a more encouraging light. For starters, this race dynamic was new to a still-inexperienced colt who’d previously dusted his competition without facing a serious battle. Sure, Justify had gone head-and-head early in his maiden score, and when attending Promises Fulfilled in the Derby, but both of those were mismatches. He raced in tandem on sufferance and put them away without batting an eye. And similarly, when Bolt d’Oro challenged him in the Santa Anita Derby, and Good Magic took a run at him at Churchill Downs, Justify was already in the controlling position. He just had to repel them and push clear again. At Pimlico, Justify was tested from the start by Good Magic – a champion, not a pushover. If the pace was not wild as in the Derby, the psychological dimension was totally different. Good Magic matched strides with Justify for much of the way. It was a war of wills between two top-class horses, and Justify succeeded in imposing his will upon Good Magic. (As an aside, I’m among those supportive of Jose Ortiz’s ride on Good Magic. His hand was forced by the draw, his sharp break, and the fact that no one else was serving it up to Justify. Had Ortiz eased back, and conceded an uncontested lead on a speed-favoring track, doesn’t Justify stroll in?) Because Justify has gotten so far on natural talent, it’s easy to forget that knuckling down may have come as a surprise to him. It’s as if he’s thinking, “Hey, this guy’s actually sticking with me. Imagine that! Good for you, buddy. Now, I gotta go.” Add in that Justify jumped the tire tracks early – photographers caught him with all four feet off the ground as if leaping over a water obstacle – and his mind must have been racing as fast as his body. Smith gave him a few cracks of the whip to get past Good Magic, but watch how he then reverts to a mild hand ride in deep stretch. My knee-jerk reaction was that he wanted to get away with the bare minimum of effort, and save those strategic reserves with a view toward the Belmont. Smith said as much Sunday morning, and admitted that he “wasn’t expecting anyone to come flying the way Lukas’s horse” Bravazo did. The counterpoint to that is Justify always drew off before – he didn’t need the jockey to urge him on. Isn’t his self-preservation here a sign that the Triple Crown grind is catching up to him? That’s a plausible hypothesis that may be validated in the Belmont, and it’s possible that Smith was nursing him home. As Baffert himself pointed out, surviving that long a slog can soften you up down the stretch. When Smith basically wrapped up on him, perhaps Justify was satisfied (relieved?) he had done enough. But again, there’s a bit more to this than meets the eye. Baffert and Smith both reported that once Justify saw his oncoming rival at the wire, he kicked into gear again. The gallop-out (or what I could see of it) supports the Hall of Famers’ contention, for Justify appeared to have more left and did not give off the vibe of a horse wanting to go lie down somewhere. A further piece of corroborative evidence was tweeted by Daily Racing Form’s Nicole Russo – video of an awfully jaunty looking Justify prancing back to the stakes barn. Horses can fool the smartest and savviest of observers, but if he weren’t telegraphing “That was great. When can we go around again?” he’s an Oscar-worthy actor. If this benign interpretation of his Preakness is correct, or at least in the ballpark, then we may be dealing with a formidable Triple Crown threat on Belmont Day – a Justify who’s come through his most serious test so far, a rite of passage that has only toughened him up. The next three weeks will tell us a lot more about Justify’s condition, energy level, and general enthusiasm ahead of the Belmont. And my opinion may change if he begins to show signs of wear and tear, weight loss, or anything different from his swath of conquest thus far. But the manner of his Preakness victory need not be a negative in itself – if you see Justify as a raw talent honing his racing brain, an unusually high-pressure case of on-the-job training, not as a collection of numbers on a page. And I freely admit that this might be a too-clever-by-half attempt to explain away an ostensible form decline. Still, Justify is no typical three-year-old on this trajectory. If you judged him by all the known rules so far, you’d have been wrong. A history-maker like this guy makes up the rules as he goes along, and that’s why I’m willing to give him benefit of the doubt. Photo by Coglianese Photos/NYRA