Why the Preakness is my 2018 Race of the Year
When first thinking about the “Race of the Year” topic, I couldn’t settle on just one. Enable’s historic victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) was on the short list, for the reasons pointed out by Vance Hanson – and I’d add for the intrigue of the Ballydoyle tactics that couldn’t contain her. How about the race that turned out to be a key Breeders’ Cup indicator more than six months in advance? The April 14 Oaklawn H. (G2) served up a terrific finish between future Dirt Mile (G1) romper City of Light and Accelerate, the eventual Classic (G1) winner suffering his only loss of the year by a neck. Even better, the Oaklawn ‘Cap is shaping up as a sneak preview of the January 26 Pegasus World Cup (G1), when the same rivals will square off over 1 1/8 miles again. Narrowing my criterion to the race that produced THE pivotal result, however, made the decision more straightforward: the May 19 Preakness (G1). The middle jewel of the Triple Crown presented Justify with his stiffest challenge, and closest call. The fog limited visibility but thereby enhanced the dramatic tension, and added ambience to what became an instant classic. After Justify came out of his Kentucky Derby (G1) triumph with a bruised heel, that cleared up fast, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert likely had to go as easy as possible during the two-week turnaround for the Preakness. Then Justify had to duel champion Good Magic into submission before edging away, and just holding the late thrust of Bravazo, in what looked like kid-glove treatment from Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith. Had Justify not established just enough of a margin, or if Smith had misjudged it by a whisker, the result might well have gone the other way. And the arc of the season probably would have been different. If Justify lost the Preakness, would he still have contested the Belmont (G1)? Or rather freshen up for the second half? If he did press on to New York anyway, and rebound in the third jewel, does he still retire with an ankle problem in the summer? Might connections instead have given him time off to heal and brought him back to burnish his resume at four? But Justify rose to the occasion at Pimlico, stayed unbeaten, and kept the Triple Crown dream going through its fulfillment at Belmont Park. That’s why the Preakness is my 2018 Race of the Year.