1 of 5 | National Treasure and John Velazquez, winners of the 148th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, pass the clubhouse on their way to victory on Saturday. Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | License Photo
May 20 (UPI) -- May 20 (UPI) -- National Treasure led from gate to wire in Saturday's $1.5 million Preakness Stakes, won a tight stretch battle and denied Kentucky Derby winner Mage, who finished third, a chance at winning the Triple Crown.
The victory capped a day of highs and lows for winning trainer Bob Baffert, who saw another of his horses, Havnameltdown, fatally injured earlier in the program at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
"It's twists and turns, ups and downs," Baffert said. Normally taciturn, he choked up momentarily in the winner's circle, saying, "We've been totally wiped out after that horse got hurt. It's been a very emotional day."
Nonetheless, Baffert and the large ownership team celebrated a victory well-crafted by National Treasure's jockey, John Velazquez.
Knowing Mage needed a swift early pace to set up his customary late run, Velazquez took National Treasure right to the lead in the Preakness and slowed things right down.
Lacking any serious pressure, Velazquez took the field down the backstretch, with Mage behind the leading trio and not making any progress.
Turning into the stretch, Blazing Sevens rolled up alongside National Treasure and the two battled through most of the stretch run, bumping back and forth, before National Treasure inched ahead in the final strides.
Mage was third, followed by Red Route One. The 1 3/16 miles on a fast track took 1:55.12, and Velazquez, who won the Preakness for the first time, said he wasn't surprised at getting away with a relatively slow pace.
"I didn't think they'd go any faster than that," Velazquez said about his tactics. "I was hoping, anyway."
Mage's trainer, Gustavo Delgado, shook his head after watching his colt fail to make up any ground against the leaders in the stretch.
"Very, very, very slow," Delgado said.
Mage was the only horse advancing from the Kentucky Derby to the second jewel of the Triple Crown on just two weeks' rest.
National Treasure and Blazing Sevens both had been idle since April 8, when National Treasure finished fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby and Blazing Sevens reported third in the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Members of National Treasure's ownership team deferred to Baffert about plans for the colt but the trainer was noncommittal about the June 10 Belmont Stakes, third jewel of the Triple Crown.
"It's been a rough day," Baffert said. "He'll let us know if he's ready to go in the Belmont."
National Treasure, a Quality Road colt out of the Medaglia d'Oro mare Treasure, had only one previous victory to his credit, that coming in his first race last September at Del Mar. He had, however, been competitive in all four intervening starts.
Havnameltdown broke down in the Grade III Chick Lang Stakes and was euthanized on the track. Jockey Luis Saez was thrown to the track and hospitalized for observation, but reportedly was not seriously injured.
The death was an untimely blow to Baffert, who has been embroiled in legal entanglements with Kentucky racing officials and Churchill Downs Inc. over medication overdoses.
The ownership banned Baffert from its tracks for two years after 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was found to have a slight overage of a therapeutic medication in a post-race sample.
"We never had an issue with him," Baffert said of Havnameltdown. "We are so careful with all these horses, and it still happens. ... It's the worst feeling. And we grieve. We do grieve when these things happen. There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty."
The Pimlico fatality came on the heels of seven horse deaths at Churchill Downs surrounding the Kentucky Derby, including two on Derby Day itself.
That race also saw a flurry of late scratches, including the heavy favorite, Forte, as racing officials scrambled to ensure against any further mishaps.
Then, the day before the Preakness, First Mission, the second choice on the morning line at 5-2, was scratched when his trainer, Brad Cox, and a team of veterinarians were unable to pinpoint the cause of discomfort in his left hind leg.
Ironically, Saez had been named at entry time to ride First Mission in the Preakness.
The resulting seven-horse field was the smallest since seven started in 1986.