National Treasure, inside, held off Blazing Sevens to win the 2023 Preakness Stakes May 20 at Pimlico Race Course with Kentucky Derby winner Mage, in the background, running third. (Eclipse Sportswire)
National Treasure, right, edged Blazing Sevens in Preakness. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Seven races after he watched Havnameltdown suffer a catastrophic injury in the Chick Lang Stakes that led the standout colt to be euthanized, Baffert surpassed 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden and entered the record books with his eighth Preakness triumph.
Understandably, the 71-year-old trainer was all but overcome by emotion immediately after National Treasure’s front-running score. Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Mage, whose style is to come from off the pace, had his chances diminished by oh-so-slow fractions and finished third.
“This business is twists and turns, the ups and downs,” Baffert said, adding, “We had a horrible race. We were totally washed out after that horse got hurt.”
Baffert went on, “I love these horses. We get through these tough times as a team.”
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, the all-time-leading North American rider by purse earnings, filled in one of the few missing pieces in his loaded resume by registering his first win in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. He has won the Kentucky Derby three times and the Belmont Stakes twice. This was his lucky 13th attempt at the Preakness.
“Gosh, it’s been a while,” said Velazquez, 51. “With all of the success I’ve had and all the success I’ve had in other races, not having won this one was definitely missing. It’s very special to have it.”
The addition of blinkers and Velazquez’s heady ride from the rail appeared to be the difference-makers in the 148th Preakness. “I give Johnny credit. He got him out of the gate beautifully,” Baffert said. “His tactics … this is why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Velazquez was able to slow the pace for the 1 3/16-mile contest to a relative crawl. He took the field of seven through an opening quarter-mile in 23.95 seconds and a first half-mile in :48.92. They still did not quicken through three-quarters timed in a plodding 1:13.49 en route to a final clocking of 1:55.12.
The slow going left Velazquez and National Treasure with plenty of fuel in the tank once Blazing Sevens and Irad Ortiz Jr. ranged up beside them. “When he came to him,” the veteran rider said, “he was not going to let that horse go by.”
National Treasure, a bay son of Quality Road, halted a four-race losing streak with his first victory since he won his debut at Del Mar on Sept. 3. In his two previous starts as a 3-year-old, he finished third in the Jan. 8 Sham Stakes and raced greenly to be fourth in the April 8 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, prompting the addition of blinkers to enhance his focus.
Baffert swept Triple Crowns with American Pharoah in 2015 and undefeated Justify in 2018. He participated in his first Triple Crown race since Medina Spirit, who after crossing the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby competed in the 2021 Preakness. Medina Spirit was eventually disqualified from the Derby win after testing positive for a banned substance, prompting Churchill Downs to ban Baffert for two years. He had a series of overages for banned medications before the Derby episode.
Although Baffert registered his 17th Triple Crown win, Preakness day will be remembered as much for Havnameltdown’s loss as it is for National Treasure’s courage in a pulsating stretch duel. Havnameltdown was locked in a battle with eventual Chick Lang winner Ryvit for the lead approaching the far turn. Havnameltdown suddenly lurched forward, unseating jockey Luis Saez. Both were quickly tended to.
A team of veterinarians led by Dr. Dionne Benson did not need long to determine that the talented 3-year-old colt sustained an inoperable injury to his front left fetlock and he was euthanized. Saez was conscious and in stable condition when he was transported to Sinai Hospital in Baltimore; he reportedly escaped serious injury.
1/ST Racing, which owns and operates Pimlico, issued a statement that said in part: “Over the past year, 1/ST Racing has worked tirelessly to implement numerous industry-leading reforms, including additional medication restrictions and new operational requirements, to enhance the existing health and safety measures with the intent of providing the safest racing environment possible.”
According to Baffert, Havnameltdown had not exhibited any physical issues before Saturday.
“There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty. He is a nice horse. He could not have been doing any better,” Baffert said. “It’s sickening. I am in shock.”
Although his fortunes would change dramatically, he will always recall his record eighth Preakness as a bittersweet afternoon.