BALTIMORE — As Lookin At Lucky reached the final sixteenth of a mile of the 135th Preakness Stakes, every piece of baggage that had hung over him fell away.
For the first time in months, there was no troubled trip to overcome, no horrid post position to hinder his style, no other unfortunate circumstances to make his connections scramble for excuses.
The only thing Lookin At Lucky had to conquer Saturday was his 11 rivals. Considering that the champion colt has spent much of his life at the top of his class, it was a challenge he was accustomed to handling.
Weeks of frustration surrounding Lookin At Lucky gave way to sweet redemption before 95,760 at Pimlico Race Course as the bay colt overtook pacesetter First Dude in the upper stretch to win the $1 million Preakness Stakes by three-quarters of a length.
With Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver fading to eighth in the 13/16-mile race, hopes of possibly seeing the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 were lost with him.
But for the enthusiastic team behind Lookin At Lucky — the reigning juvenile champion and four-time Grade I winner — Saturday was all about making up for lost opportunities.
Despite his auspicious name, the son of Smart Strike went in with a streak of misfortune.
There was his extremely wide trip from the No. 13 hole during his runnerup effort in November in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his third-place run in the Santa Anita Derby after getting pinched in tight quarters, and most recently getting slammed into the rail at the start of the Kentucky Derby and running sixth as the betting favorite after drawing the undesirable No. 1 post position.
All that helped prompt trainer Bob Baffert to be bold, taking regular rider Garrett Gomez off Lookin At Lucky and replacing him with upstart Martin Garcia for the Preakness.
As the Hall of Famer hoisted the Woodlawn Vase for the fifth time, tying him with D. Wayne Lukas and T.J. Healey for second all time in Preakness wins, there was no doubt his unshakable faith in his colt and his gamble had been well worth it.
"This was a different kind of win. This was more of a redemption win," said Baffert, who also won the Preakness with War Emblem (2002), Point Given (2001), Real Quiet (1998) and Silver Charm (1997). "I wanted to win it for the horse because he tries so hard every time. He's had those rough trips, Santa Anita, the Derby, but … every time he came back.
"He's just a really great athlete. He's one of the best I've ever had."
The fresh-faced Garcia, 25, who has been riding for about five years, gained his first mount in a Triple Crown race two weeks ago when he guided the Baffert-trained Conveyance to 15th in the Kentucky Derby.
There was no hint of nerves, however, as he guided Lookin At Lucky out of post position No. 7 Saturday. He saved ground and settled the 2-1 second choice midpack clear on the outside. First Dude cut quick fractions of :22.91 and :46.47, with Super Saver 1½ lengths back in second.
"When I started riding, I didn't even know what the Preakness is, any race," Garcia said. "Mr. Baffert told me to break good and try and stay dry in the first turn, and that's what I did. I had a really great horse."
First Dude hung strong approaching the final turn as Super Saver began backing up under Calvin Borel. Lookin At Lucky angled out four-wide and moved to the front alongside Caracortado.
Caracortado couldn't sustain his bid, but Lookin At Lucky dug in gamely under right-handed urging from Garcia to overtake First Dude on his inside.
"When I ask him to go, he kicked," said Garcia, beaming. "My horse kept fighting. And when he kicked again, the last 16th (of a mile), I think, 'This race is gonna be mine!' "
It was one of the few answers Garcia gave in his interviews that spoke to the race itself. To everything else, he answered the same.
"Thank you for giving me the chance to ride this beautiful horse."
First Dude held for second by a head over fast-closing Jackson Bend as Lookin At Lucky hit the wire in 1:55.47 for his seventh win in 10 career starts.
"It was time for some luck," said Paul Weitman, who co-owns Lookin At Lucky with Karl Watson and Mike Pegram. "We had it today. The horse was ready, Bob had the horse ready, and Martin did a wonderful job."
Though he chased a swift pace, Todd Pletcher, trainer of Super Saver, didn't blame the fractions for the colt's failure to duplicate the form that won him the Kentucky Derby by 2½ lengths.
"It looked like the colt was relaxed, but … he came up empty," Pletcher said of the 9-5 favorite. "When they went to the far turn, you could see Calvin was squeezing and asking, but he just couldn't do it. Now we've got time to come back for a big summer."
Borel's take: "They were running fast. When I asked him (to go), he kind of pulled it up."
Baffert said last week he did not plan to send Lookin At Lucky onto the third jewel of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes on June 5. After capitalizing on this classic opportunity, however, that door is now slightly open.
"We'll talk about it later on," Baffert said. "The Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl, and these are like the NFC Championships, but they're still just as exciting."