Down, up, down, up.
Yes, that was quite an emotional roller coaster ride trainer Bob Baffert went on last Friday and Saturday at Baltimore’s Pimlico’s Race Course.
DOWN: The ups and downs for Baffert began last Friday (May 19). He sent out undefeated Faiza, the 3-5 favorite in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. But the 3-year-old filly’s bubble of invincibility was burst when she finished third to Taxed and Hoosier Philly.
It was Faiza’s first defeat in six career starts.
“We were disappointed with that,” Baffert said.
UP: In Saturday’s fourth race, the Sir Barton Stakes for 3-year-olds, Baffert-trained Arabian Lion ended a four-race losing streak with a four-length victory in front-running fashion.
Arabian Lion completed his 1 1/16-mile journey in an excellent 1:41.13. He was so impressive that Baffert’s immediate response was to say: “I should have run him in the Preakness!”
It turned out that Arabian Lion’s 103 Beyer Speed Figure did exceed the Preakness winner’s 98.
Arabian Lion went into the Sir Barton off a second to First Mission in Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington Stakes on April 15. First Mission won the Lexington by a half-length and had been entered in the Preakness. But it was announced the day before the Preakness that First Mission would be scratched due to a left hind ankle issue.
After the Sir Barton, a race named in honor of the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, Baffert said he was surprised that Arabian Lion had lost the Lexington.
“I didn’t think he could lose in the Lexington,” Baffert said. “I was just, ‘How did he get beat?’ I think that race sort of helped him, and I wanted to give him one more try around two turns. He’s such a beautiful horse. He is like a smaller version of Justify.”
Baffert won the 2018 Triple Crown with Justify, who joined Seattle Slew as the only two to sweep the coveted series while undefeated.
Arabian Lion, a $600,000 auction purchase, “is just starting to wake up,” Baffert said following the Sir Barton.
“When he came back [to the winner’s circle after the Sir Barton], he was not blowing hard,” Baffert continued. “He did it the right way and the time was really impressive…What I saw today I thought I was going to see in the Lexington. If he had won the Lexington, he would have definitely been in the Preakness.”
DOWN: Havnameltdown, a 3-year-old multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter for Baffert, was backed down to 4-5 favoritism in the sixth race, the Grade III Chick Lang Stakes, a six-furlong contest for 3-year-olds.
Havnameltdown was making his first start since a narrow defeat in the Group III, $1.5 million Saudi Derby on Feb. 25.
Ryvit won the Chick Lang. It was his fourth victory in a row.
As for Havnameltdown, he “sustained a catastrophic injury unseating his rider leaving the three-eighths pole and was euthanized on the track,” according to the Equibase race chart.
Havnameltdown reportedly sustained a severe left fore fetlock injury.
The rider unseated from Havnameltdown was Luis Saez. Fortunately, Saez was able to ride the following day at Churchill Downs. Though he did not win any of the five races he rode in Sunday, Saez finished second in four of them.
UP: Returning to the Triple Crown series for the first time in two years, Baffert won the 13th race on the Pimlico card, the 148th running of the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes, with National Treasure.
National Treasure set a soft pace --as many had expected -- and narrowly prevailed by a head while edging runner-up Blazing Sevens. Mage finished third as the favorite, beaten by 2 1/4 lengths after having taken the Kentucky Derby by one length two weeks earlier.
After National Treasure raced sans blinkers in his first two 2023 starts, he had blinkers back on in the Preakness. He wore blinkers twice in 2022, his maiden win at first asking and his third in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
In the Preakness, National Treasure rolled along on the early lead by one to 1 1/2 lengths under a snug rating hold while posting preliminary fractions of :23.95, :48.92 and 1:13.49. By contrast, the early splits in the Kentucky Derby were :22.35, :45.73 and 1:10.11.
Coffeewithchris raced closest to early pace in the Preakness. But he faltered badly after six furlongs and wound up last in the field of seven. Coffeewithchris was nearly 20 lengths behind National Treasure at the finish.
Blazing Sevens, never far back, advanced to get within a head of the leader, National Treasure, turning for home. The pair proceeded to slug it out all the way to the finish. It appeared that Blazing Sevens poked his head in front approaching the sixteenth pole, but National Treasure resolutely kept to his task and ultimately prevailed by a head.
John Velazquez rode National Treasure, the 5-2 second choice in the wagering. Four-time Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr. piloted Blazing Sevens, who was sent off at 9-2.
It looked like National Treasure and Blazing Sevens bumped three times in the frenetic final furlong. However, there was no stewards’ inquiry or jockey’s objection.
“When that horse [Blazing Sevens] came to him, he just gutted it out,” Baffert said of National Treasure, a Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt.
After the race, Baffert fought back tears on national television when obviously still overcome with grief from what had happened earlier in the day with Havnameltdown.
Pace makes the race is one of the oldest expressions in horse racing. Velazquez being allowed to control the pace so comfortably was no doubt a key to National Treasure’s Preakness triumph.
What Velazquez did on National Treasure brought to mind his front-running 2020 victories aboard the Baffert-trained Authentic in the Kentucky Derby and then the BC Classic.
“It does not take an Einstein to see what might well happen in the BC Classic once Authentic was allowed to bowl along comfortably on the front end, furlong after furlong,” I wrote in my 2020 BC Classic recap for Xpressbet.com. “In his seven 2020 starts, he won every time he led at the first call and lost both times he didn’t.
“Authentic won the BC Classic, America’s richest race with a purse of $6 million, by a clear-cut 2 1/4 lengths. He was sent away at 4-1.
“It seemed that on the two occasions in which it really mattered, Authentic found a way to get the job done. When the 3-year-old male title quite possibly was on the line in the Run for the Roses, Authentic came through. Similarly, when the Horse of the Year crown quite possibly was on the line in the BC Classic, Authentic again came through.”
Authentic was indeed voted 2020 Eclipse Awards as champion 3-year-old male and, more importantly, Horse of the Year.
The next morning after National Treasure’s Preakness victory, a subdued Baffert met with the media.
“I’m still upset about losing that horse yesterday,” Baffert said. “My memory of [the Preakness] is going to be about him. It just took all the fun out of it.”
BAFFERT MAKES PREAKNESS HISTORY
National Treasure provided 70-year-old Baffert with a record eighth Preakness victory. He now stands alone as the trainer with the most wins in this prestigious event, breaking a tie with R. Wyndham Walden.
Baffert’s eight Preakness winners have been Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Point Given (2001), War Emblem (2002), Lookin At Lucky (2010), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018) and National Treasure (2023).
Walden saddled seven Preakness winners from 1875 to 1888.
BAFFERT ALSO HAS MOST WINS IN TRIPLE CROWN RACES
Thanks to National Treasure, Baffert increased his record number of victories in Triple Crown races to 17.
The trainers with seven or more wins in a Triple Crown race are listed below:
Total (Ky. Derby, Preakness, Belmont wins) Trainer
17 (7-7-3) Bob Baffert
14 (4-6-4) D. Wayne Lukas
13 (3-4-6) “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons
11 (2-1-8) James Rowe
11 (0-7-4) R. Wyndam Walden
9 (3-2-4) Max Hirsch
9 (6-2-1) “Plain Ben” Jones
8 (2-1-5) Woody Stephens
7 (0-0-7) Sam Hildreth
7 (2-4-1) Jimmy Jones
It’s interesting to me that the two trainers with the most wins in Triple Crown races, Baffert and Lukas, started out as Quarter Horse trainers.
JOHNNY V FINALLY WINS PREAKNESS
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, 45, got the Kentucky Derby monkey off his back when he won this year’s renewal on Mage. Castellano had been 0 for 15 in the Run for the Roses.
Similarly, Hall of Famer Velazquez, 51, got the Preakness monkey off his back when he won the race this year after having been 0 for 12.
It would seem to be a good idea to pay attention to any jockey in the June 10 Belmont Stakes who will be trying to end some sort for 0-for-something situation.
WHY DID MAGE LOSE?
As I wrote last week for Xpressbet.com, I not only picked Mage to win the Preakness, I was enthusiastically on his bandwagon. I did back up my opinion by making a substantial win wager on him.
Offering odds of 2-1 for much of the afternoon, Mage left the starting gate as a 7-5 favorite, which I thought was a very fair price. He originally was 8-5 on Keith Feustle’s morning line, with First Mission pegged as the second choice at 5-2.
With First Mission out of the race, I expected Mage to be a lot shorter price than the 7-5 he ended up being.
Mage had been breaking slowly in his races, but not this time. He departed the starting gate beautifully. Unlike the Kentucky Derby, in which Mage was as far back as some 13 lengths early, he was three to 3 1/2 lengths off the pace in the early part of the Preakness.
Nearing the top of the stretch, Mage moved into third and loomed menacingly. When Mage was only two lengths off the lead at the head of the stretch, I was licking my chops. I fully expected to see a powerful stretch kick from Mage that would carry him to a Preakness victory.
But unlike the Kentucky Derby, there would be no late kick from Mage this time. He drifted inward approaching the eighth pole, which seemed to temporarily stall his momentum, suggesting that he’s still a bit green in this, his fifth career start.
Instead of having any late punch, Mage flattened out in the last furlong. He was two lengths behind with a furlong to go, then 2 1/4 lengths behind at the finish. That’s a classic case of flattening out late.
One of the reasons I loved Mage in the Preakness is I felt that he had some margin for error from his Kentucky Derby performance. I thought he could regress off his 105 Beyer Speed Figure in the Derby and still maybe win the Preakness with something like a 100, 101 or 102.
Well, Mage did indeed regress in the Preakness. The problem for me and my wager on him is he regressed too much, down to a 94, a substantial drop of 11 Beyer points from the Kentucky Derby.
Did Mage get beat in the Preakness because of the slower pace? Was it because he was returning in two weeks? Was it a combination of both?
Like practically everyone, I recognized that the Preakness pace almost certainly was going to be slower, maybe even much slower, than in the Kentucky Derby. I wrote the following in my Preakness analysis for Xpressbet.com last week: “With just four races under Mage’s belt, he’s still something of a work in progress. But I’m thinking he just might be the type who might be able to adapt to various pace scenarios. In other words, it won’t surprise me if it turns out that Mage is versatile enough to win whether a pace is fast, moderate or slow.”
The Preakness pace did turn out to be slow. Did Mage win anyway? No.
Mage is good. Evidently, he’s just not as good as I thought he might be.
Gustavo Delgado trains Mage. After the Preakness, trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. said that he felt that the slow pace had compromised Mage’s chances.
“The pace was hard to [overcome],” Delgado Jr. said. “Don’t take anything away from the winner. They beat us. That’s it. [Mage] ran a good race to be third. If you take him farther back [off a slow pace], maybe he doesn’t respond. No [early] speed in the race. The horses in front were going easily. Those horses, you don’t beat them [with that pace]. They always fight. They fight when they go fast. Imagine when they go so slow. They re-break.”
NO TRIPLE CROWN ATTEMPT
Mage’s defeat in the Preakness means there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. He will not be going on to the Belmont Stakes. The word from the Mage camp is the next major goal for him is Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 26.
There was a 25-year Triple Crown drought from Citation in 1948 to Secretariat in 1973. There was an even longer 37-year Triple Crown drought from Affirmed in 1978 to American Pharoah in 2015.
The current Triple Crown dry spell now is up to five years since Justify achieved the difficult feat in 2018.
Going back to when Justify swept the series, this year’s Preakness was the 15th consecutive Triple Crown race won by a different horse.
BloodHorse’s Bob Ehalt reported Wednesday (May 24) that National Treasure is headed to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in an attempt to win two of the Triple Crown jewels.
“The connections of Preakness winner National Treasure say the son of Quality Road will be sent to New York May 24 by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert for a start in the June 10 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park,” Ehalt wrote.
“The plan is to ship to New York and we’ll take it day by day from there,” said SF Racing’s Tom Ryan, managing partner of the 3-year-old colt’s ownership group. “He bounced out of the Preakness in great shape and seems to have a lot of energy and appetite, all those good signs. I think he gave us every reason to believe he’s fit enough to handle the mile and a half. We’re looking forward to it.”
VERY ODD PREAKNESS ODDS
The betting in this year’s Preakness was bizarre in that not one of the seven starters was sent off at odds higher than 10-1.
Chase the Chaos, who finished fifth, and Coffewithchris, who as mentioned earlier came in seventh, both started at 10-1. Chase the Chaos was 50-1 and Coffeewithcris was 20-1 on the original morning line.
The ridiculously low 10-1 prices on Chase the Chaos and Coffeewithchris contributed to me getting 7-5 instead of lower odds on Mage. But getting what I thought was a good price on Mage proved meaningless when he lost, though his price being as high as it was at least did keep me from betting even more on him than I did.
NATIONAL TREASURE’S TIME VERSUS SECRETARIAT’S
National Treasure’s final time for 1 3/16 miles was 1:55.12 or 1:55 in fifths.
Pimlico’s track record of 1:52 2/5 for 1 3/16 miles was set by Farma Way in the 1991 Pimlico Special.
The Preakness record of 1:53 is held by 1973 winner Secretariat. This means that the great Secretariat would have defeated National Treasure by about 10 lengths.
WINNER’S BEYER SPEED FIGURE
“Another reason that I’m so bullish on Mage winning the Preakness is it’s my opinion that the Kentucky Derby field was tougher than this one,” I wrote last week,” I wrote last week.
In my opinion, without Kentucky Derby runner-up Two Phil’s or Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male Forte in the Preakness, it made the Preakness all the more winnable for Mage.
Of the 18 starters in the Kentucky Derby, Mage was the only one to run in the Preakness. This was the first time only one Kentucky Derby starter returned in the Preakness since Citation was on his way to a Triple Crown sweep in 1948.
I believe that my supposition that the Kentucky Derby field was stronger than the Preakness lineup has been proven correct by the fact that National Treasure was credited with only a 98 Beyer Speed Figure for his Preakness victory.
Going all the way back to 1991, just one Preakness winner has had a lower Beyer than National Treasure. That was Justify, who recorded a 97 in 2018.
Below are Beyer Speed Figures for Preakness winners going back to 1991 (the first year they were listed in the American Racing Manual):
2023 National Treasure (98)
2022 Early Voting (105)
2021 Rombauer (102)
2020 Swiss Skydiver (105)
2019 War of Will (99)
2018 Justify (97)
2017 Cloud Computing (102)
2016 Exaggerator (101)
2015 American Pharoah (102)
2014 California Chrome (105)
2013 Oxbow (106)
2012 I’ll Have Another (109)
2011 Shackleford (104)
2010 Lookin At Lucky (102)
2009 Rachel Alexandra (108)
2008 Big Brown (100)
2007 Curlin (111)
2006 Bernardini (113)
2005 Afleet Alex (112)
2004 Smarty Jones (118)
2003 Funny Cide (114)
2002 War Emblem (109)
2001 Point Given (111)
2000 Red Bullet (109)
1999 Charismatic (107)
1998 Real Quiet (111)
1997 Silver Charm (118)
1996 Louis Quatorze (112)
1995 Timber Country (106)
1994 Tabasco Cat (112)
1993 Prairie Bayou (98)
1992 Pine Bluff (104)
1991 Hansel (117)
FORTE FLATTERED BY MAGE, NATIONAL TREASURE
Forte was the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the Kentucky Derby. However, he was not permitted to run after being scratched the morning of race day “by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission state veterinarian,” according to a Churchill Downs press release. Forte was battling a bruised right front foot.
Consequently, Forte was placed on the 14-day vet’s list, precluding him from running in the Preakness, even if his connections had wanted him to do so.
I was willing to take a stand against Forte in the Kentucky Derby, mainly because of his declining Beyer Speed Figure pattern. After Forte’s 100 Beyer when he won the BC Juvenile, he registered a 98 Beyer in the Fountain of Youth, then slid further down to a 95 Beyer in the Florida Derby.
But I think Forte has been flattered by what happened in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Forte defeated the Kentucky Derby winner twice this year in Florida. Forte beat the Preakness winner in the BC Juvenile late last year.
Mage won the Kentucky Derby after finishing fourth in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes and second in the Grade I Florida Derby. Forte won both races.
Preakness victor National Treasure ran third to Forte and Cave Rock in the BC Juvenile last Nov. 4.
SANTA ANITA DERBY’S IMAGE RECEIVES BOOST
Japanese-based Mandarin Hero finished a close second in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, losing by a scant nose to Practical Move. When Mandarin Hero then ran 12th in the Kentucky Derby, some felt that suggested that perhaps this year’s Santa Anita Derby was not all that strong.
But before you write off the Santa Anita Derby as being insignificant, keep in mind National Treasure could finish no better than fourth in that race (behind Practical Move, Mandarin Hero and Skinner), then won the Preakness in his next start.
An elevated temperature caused both Practical Move and Skinner to be scratched from the Kentucky Derby after outrunning National Treasure in the Santa Anita Derby.
Through May 23, the only two Santa Anita Derby starters to have run back other than Mandarin Hero both won next time out. Besides National Treasure, One in Vermillion finished fifth in the Santa Anita Derby, then won Santa Anita’s Lazaro Barrera Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths on May 6.
RECENT SUCCESS FOR “NEW SHOOTERS” CONTINUES
Mage was the lone Kentucky Derby starter to run in this year’s Preakness. This meant that all six of his opponents were a so-called “new shooter (i.e., a horse who did not run in the Kentucky Derby).
From 2000 through 2016, just three new shooters won the Preakness: Red Bullet in 2000, Bernardini in 2006 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
But new shooters have been doing quite well as of late. There now have been four recent Preakness winners who did not run in the Kentucky Derby: Cloud Computing in 2017, Rombauer in 2021, Early Voting in 2022 and National Treasure in 2023.
BROWN NEARLY WINS ANOTHER PREAKNESS
The splendid try by Blazing Sevens in a narrow loss meant that Chad Brown came close to winning his third Preakness in seven years.
Brown won the Preakness in 2017 with Cloud Computing and in 2022 with Early Voting. Both horses had skipped the Kentucky Derby. Blazing Sevens likewise did not run in the Derby.
On the one hand, it’s clear that whenever Brown brings a fresh horse to the Preakness, that particular horse should be taken very seriously.
On the other hand, the Preakness extended Blazing Sevens’ losing streak to four since he splashed home a 3 1/2-length winner in the Grade I Champagne Stakes on a sloppy track last Oct. 1.
TOP 10 IN THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 312 Cody’s Wish (17)
2. 276 Elite Power (14)
3. 227 Proxy (2)
4. 170 Clairiere
5. 165 Art Collector
6. 156 Smile Happy (1)
7. 84 Stilleto Boy
8. 68 Defunded
9. 65 In Italian
10. 56 Caravel
TOP 10 IN THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THREE-YEAR-OLD POLL
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 296 Mage (11)
2. 294 Forte (16)
3. 269 National Treasure (5)
4. 253 Two Phil’s (1)
5. 203 Angel of Empire
6. 147 Blazing Sevens
7. 108 Practical Move (1)
8. 107 Tapit Trice
9. 48 Arabian Lion (1)
10. 43 Disarm