By Christina Bossinakis
BALTIMORE, MD–The ABC Wide World of Sports telecast used to kick off with legendary TV host and personality Jim McKay uttering “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” And never were those atipodal points more evident than they were for trainer Bob Baffert on Pimlico's Preakness Day card. His first runner on the card, Arabian Lion (Justify) strode to a four-length victory in the Sir Barton S., getting the Baffert team off to a fast start. However, the celebration was short lived. Two races later, 4-5 choice Havnameltdown (Uncaptured) broke down tragically during the running of the GIII Chick Lang S., necessitating his euthanasia. The Baffert team was utterly devastated. Fast forward to the day's feature event, the Baffert team sheltered in Pimlico's indoor paddock to watch the race, and while Baffert put on a brave face, chatting with the media, his wife Jill looked visibly shaken. Just moments later, nerves and anticipation culminated in an explosion of emotion as National Treasure (Quality Road) crossed the wire in front. Baffert's son, Bode, had his father in an intense bear hug, shouting in jubilation. And in a heartbeat, Bob worked his way over to Jill, engulfed in the frenetic excitement and, who just collapsed into his arms in a flood of tears. The couple's emotionally charged and lingering embrace felt palpable to many in the small group of bystanders.
“This business is twists and turns, ups and downs,” said Baffert. “We started out great, we had a horrible race and we've been totally wiped out after [Havnameltdown] got hurt. The emotions of this game, there's so many responsibilities a trainer has–employees, horse and jockey safety, and then to win this…Losing that horse today really hurt. I'm very happy for Johnny [Velazquez] that he got the win. It's been a very emotional day.”
The victory marked a record eighth Preakness win for the Hall of Fame trainer, surpassing Robert Wyndham Walden (7) and Baffert's good friend and fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas (6).
“To win eight–right now I'm not thinking about the eight because, hopefully, I want to come back here and add to that. But I'm happy for just this horse doing what he did today. I mean, this horse brought us all out of just a horrible moment today, and I'm just grateful to that horse.”
The victory also marked the first Preakness win for Velazquez, who has been aboard for all six of the colt's career starts.
“With all the blessings that 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,” said Velazquez.
Pace Makes the Race..
Away cleanly from the inside stall, the colt drew Velazquez to the front as Coffeewithchris (Ride On Curlin), the co-longest shot on the board at 10-1, took up the chase with 9-2 third choice Blazing Sevens (Good Magic) and the defending Kentucky Derby champ and 7-5 favorite Mage (Good Magic) in close pursuit through an opening quarter in :23.95. Down the backstretch, a super-rank Red Route One (Gun Runner) sensed the poky pace and threw his head in the air as Joel Rosario tried to quell the smoldering inferno. Still cruising up front while throwing down an equally sedate half in :48.92, National Treasure maintained a 1 1/2-length advantage over Coffeewithchris with the trio of Red Route One, Mage and Blazing Sevens drafting another length behind. Blazing Sevens rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., started to turn the screws on the leader after three quarters in 1:13.49, setting the duo up for an epic battle. Turning for home, National Treasure held the inside advantage, while Blazing Sevens swung out six paths wide with the Derby champ being fanned out even wider and trying to mount his own challenge down the center of the track. At the top of the stretch, Blazing Sevens relentlessly closed on the leader who still had something left in the tank. Deadlocked midstretch, the duo appeared to gain, and then lose, the lead with every stride. With Velazquez scrubbing on the colt left handed and Ortiz Jr. showing the whip to his mount on the outside, the pair rolled down the stretch, battling with every stride, and ultimately hitting the wire seemingly in unison. The photo told another tale, however. Or a head as it were. Mage finished 2 1/4 lengths back in third while Red Route One was another 2 1/2 lengths farther back in fourth.
“I got a good break and hooked him outside a bit to think about what I was going to do,” explained Velazquez. “It wasn't really the plan [to put him front] but I really wanted to put him in a good rhythm. We got to the [first] turn and went to the inside and saved some ground. And we also saved some ground on the second turn when Irad [Ortiz Jr. aboard Blazing Sevens] started moving at the three-eighths pole, I stayed in there. But when I came to the quarter pole, I put a little pressure on [National Treasure] and he fought the whole way. At the 3/16ths pole, he put up a really good fight and he did not let [Blazing Sevens] pass him. That's what champions do.”
“You ride the best you can and the horse responds the best he can and does everything you want to do. That's what it takes. We do all the planning, but that's what you hope for. He did everything I asked him to do.”
While the fractions proved a detriment to some, they were the ace in the hole for team Baffert and National Treasure.
“I loved [the early fractions],” he said. “If we could make the easy lead and just cruise around there…We knew he would love the distance. Once I saw the half-mile fraction, there was no excuses. That horse came to him…I thought he was going to go by us. But our horse dug in. It was a great race.”
In stark contrast, a visibly gutted Chad Brown was pragmatic about Blazing Seven's narrow defeat.
“I did not want to be in the middle of the racetrack the whole way, but I don't think Irad [Ortiz Jr.] had much choice,” the trainer explained. “The horse just got a very, very wide trip and he came up just short. I think the amount of ground lost probably cost him. I was a little worried because he was so wide the whole way. I thought maybe it might take the starch out of him a little bit, and it did. He had the outside post and I think Irad made the best decisions that he could. I don't see what he could have done differently.”
With Mage's Triple Crown dreams dashed, assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. also thought his colt's chances were compromised by the slow pace.
“We took the shot; it was worth the shot, and we got beat,” he said. “But I don't take anything from the winner. They beat us. That's it. He ran a good race to be third.”
He continued, “If you take him farther back [off a slow pace], maybe he doesn't respond. No speed in the race…The horses in front were going easy. 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.
He added, “He's lightly raced; we'll see how he comes back. We'll regroup, take our time and see what's next to him. Nobody is going to take the Derby from him.”
Classic Winner in the Making…
Sent off the 3-1 second choice in his career debut at Del Mar last September, the Kentucky bred came home a 1 1/2 length winner and was jumped up into top-tier company for his next two, finishing runner-up behind stablemate Cave Rock (Arrogate) in the GI American Pharoah S. before coming home third to ultimate juvenile champion Forte (Violence) and Cave Rock in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland in November. Shelved for the rest of the year, he returned with a third behind two more Baffert alums–Reincarnate (Good Magic) and Newgate (Into Mischief)–in the GIII Sham S. Jan. 8. Transferred to Tim Yakteen in order to earn Kentucky Derby points in his latest start, he finished fourth behind Practical Move (Practical Joke) in the GI Santa Anita Derby.
“He won early and he showed us he was a nice horse, but we knew that he needed distance.” Baffert explained. “It just took him a while. He is still hasn't really filled out into his frame.”
Coming into Saturday's race, the sophomore worked four furlongs in a bullet :47.40 (1/31) at Santa Anita May 12 following a six-furlong move in a bullet 1:11.20 (1/4) May 6.
“We can tell his last works were very strong–he was working like a really good horse,” he continued. “His works were ridiculous. We also shipped here early because I didn't want to bring him too close to the race. I wanted to give him a chance to settle in.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Following the highest of highs and the lowest of lows experienced by the Baffert team over the course of a single day, the Hall of Fame trainer acknowledged it was the team effort that meant the most to the man who has spent a lifetime training horses..43 years to be exact.
“To me, this means more for Johnny getting his first Preakness win,” he admitted. “I give Johnny credit; he got him out of the gate beautifully. That's why he's in the Hall of Fame. I always feel confident when Johnny is on my horse.”
He continued, “I also have a great team. We've got Jimmy Barnes, you all know; my assistant, Pascual Rivera; all my grooms. They're the ones that do all the hard work. I delegate a lot of this, and we're a good team. They know what's expected of them.”
And while Baffert admits that his team at the barn are instrumental to his success, he also acknowledges that his 'home' team lays at its very foundation.
“Well, I couldn't have done it without my beautiful wife Jill's support and my family and my friends,” said a visibly emotional Baffert. “We've been through a tough go. But we knew we would get through this, and the thing is–I just focus. Like I said, it's the love of the horse that just keeps me focused and keeps me going, and I just kept the noise out.”
Addressing some of the challenges he and his team have faced in recent times, he admitted, “It was tough. We had some tough moments. It's not really vindication, but it's days like this that I feel like we have a moment where we can enjoy it and enjoy what we do. We get rewarded for how hard everybody in my team works. To me, that's mainly what it's about.”
National Treasure's victory gave Lane's End sire his 15th Grade 1/Group 1 victory. Offered at last summer's Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling sale, bloodstock agent Donato Lanni extended to $500,000 on behalf of SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Sol Kumin's Madaket Stables. The partners subsequently brought on partners Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan. The colt was bred in Kentucky by Peter Blum Thoroughbreds, also responsible for Champion 3-year-old Authentic, also trained by Baffert and campaigned by Starlight and Madaket in partnership with Spendthrift and Myracehorse.
Run through the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2013, the winner's dam Treasure RNA'd for $375,000. After producing a pair of colts by Speightstown in 2017 and 2018, both with earnings over $200,000, she followed with a full sister to National Treasure prior to the Preakness winner. Most recently, she produced a colt by Omaha Beach in 2021 named Pirate followed by a filly by Authentic last season. She was bred back to Quality Road.
PREAKNESS S.-GI, $1,650,000, Pimlico, 5-20, 3yo, 1 3/16m, 1:55.12, ft.
1–NATIONAL TREASURE, 126, c, 3, by Quality Road
1st Dam: Treasure, by Medaglia d'Oro
2nd Dam: Proposal, by Mt. Livermore
3rd Dam: Lady of Choice, by Storm Bird
1ST BLACK TYPE WIN, 1ST GRADED STAKES WIN,
1ST GRADE I WIN. ($500,000 Ylg '21 FTSAUG). O-SF Racing LLC,
Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Robert E. Masterson,
Stonestreet Stables LLC, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge
Capital LLC and Catherine Donovan; B-Peter E. Blum
Thoroughbreds, LLC (KY); T-Bob Baffert; J-John R. Velazquez.
$990,000. Lifetime Record: 6-2-1-2, $1,335,000. Werk Nick
Rating: F. Click for the eNicks report & 5-cross pedigree.
Click for the free Equineline.com catalogue-style pedigree.
2–Blazing Sevens, 126, c, 3, Good Magic–Trophy Girl, by
Warrior's Reward. 'TDN Rising Star'. ($140,000 Ylg '21 KEEJAN;
$225,000 Ylg '21 FTSAUG). O-Rodeo Creek Racing, LLC; B-Tracy
Farmer (KY); T-Chad C. Brown. $330,000.
3–Mage, 126, c, 3, Good Magic–Puca, by Big Brown. ($235,000
Ylg '21 KEESEP; $290,000 2yo '22 EASMAY). O-OGMA
Investments, LLC, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing LLC and
CMNWLTH; B-Grandview Equine (KY); T-Gustavo Delgado.
Margins: HD, 2 1/4, 2HF. Odds: 2.90, 4.90, 1.40.
Also Ran: Red Route One, Chase the Chaos, Perform, Coffeewithchris. Scratched: First Mission.
Click for the Equibase.com chart and the TJCIS.com PPs. VIDEO, sponsored by TVG.