Preakness Contender Mugatu Brings Blue-Collar Stable To Classic Stage

Mugatu and trainer Jeff Engler | Sara Gordon


When Mugatu (Blofeld) makes his way onto the track in the morning, it's hard to look away. The imposing chestnut colt with the unique blaze that spans across his forehead before trickling down to just above his nostrils has a presence that makes you pay attention. And when he moves across the track, it's easy to understand why he was the one that Dan Preiss sought out on the final day of the 2023 Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's Spring 2-Year-Olds in Training sale.

After receiving a call from trainer Jeff Engler halfway through the sale, Preiss had a new order to fill: finding a 2-year-old for a group of Kentucky and Ohio-based clients with a budget of $15,000. It was a feat that seemed nearly impossible as the horses continued to file through the ring until Preiss was directed to the Wavertree Stables consignment and met a Blofeld colt out of Union Way (Union Rags) (hip 1150).

“When I called Jeff, I told him, 'I really like this horse,' said Preiss. “He's bigger than most horses that I would ever buy at a 2-year-old sale but that's what I like about him because he went :10 3/5, which is why we could afford him. He's not built like a 2-year-old in training sale horse, he's a massive colt. Then I looked a little deeper and saw the gallop out, which was probably in the top 5% in the whole sale, and that's when I got excited.”

Despite a brief bidding war with an internet bidder, Preiss came out on top at a final price of $14,000.

Since then, he's taken his connections on quite the ride over various parts of the country. Owned by Average Joe Racing and Dan Wells, the colt made his first three career starts as a 2-year-old at Ellis Park before heading out to Keeneland, and later closing out the year in Florida at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay. Though it took some time, which seems to be a given with a horse of his stature, Mugatu broke his maiden in his fifth career start, going a mile and 70 yards on the all-weather at Gulfstream and winning it by 3 1/4 lengths.

Engler has tried the colt at a variety of distances and surfaces, giving him the upper hand in terms of experience when compared to many other colts his age.

“He's filled out tremendously [since last year]. He's gotten a lot bigger, stronger, wider,” said Engler. “The nice thing about him is he runs good on everything, really. Tapeta he really liked, obviously he ran good in the [John] Battaglia [Memorial S.]. He ran a really big race in the Rushaway [S.] at Turfway. He ran eighth but got beat 2 1/2 lengths by Trikari (Oscar Performance) who came back to win [the GII American Turf] on Derby Day.

“He's run against a lot of high-quality horses, obviously Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) and Dornoch (Good Magic), but he seems to prefer dirt. His best number was on the dirt and when we switched him over to the dirt, we moved him from Turfway to Belterra Park to train on it leading up to the [GI Kentucky] Derby. Initially we thought he was going to be an outstanding turf horse, but he just didn't show that real big kick at the end. So, I'm thinking dirt and synthetic [for him].”

The colt's fourth in the Battaglia, along with his run in the GI Toyota Blue Grass S., where he outran his 181-1 odds to close from last to finish fifth, earned him 14 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The colt and his team were on the outside looking in on the also-eligible list leading up to the first Saturday in May, just one scratch away from drawing into the field, but unfortunately didn't receive the call they had been hoping for.

Despite that disappointment, Engler has forged ahead with Mugatu, bringing him back to Belterra for one more work–breezing five furlongs in :59.80 on May 11–as the team switched their focus to Baltimore for Saturday's GI Preakness S.

“It was very disappointing not to draw in and obviously we needed someone to scratch, and we weren't wishing it on anybody,” said Engler. “We were there [at Churchill Downs] all week, just saying, 'if it happens, it happens.' It didn't happen, but the good thing is he handled that entire week like a professional. He loves the camera and he handled the crowds, the press, and all of the people by the rail. He never flinched.

“We feel like we have a horse that has the mind and talent to be in these races and it's very exciting to be in this race. It's a Triple Crown race and for a stable the size of mine to be in a race like this, it's a lifelong dream. [The owners] are on cloud nine. They're all great people and they've been with me for 15 years, through thick and thin. They've had a couple halfway decent horses but never a horse to run in a Triple Crown race. It's like the blue-collar stable coming in to take on the white-collar stables.”

It seems only fitting that Mugatu, though a Kentucky-bred, would make his Classic debut in the state where his sire Blofeld (Quality Road) resides at Murmur Farm in Darlington. Despite his smaller crop sizes, success is a consistent factor among his offspring, including stakes winners Chickieness, Johnyz From Albany, Miss Harriett, Alpine Mist and Charming Way from four crops with 93 foals of racing age. Last year, he climbed into the top five on Maryland's top 10 overall sires list.

“Since we [got Mugatu], I've learned a lot about Blofeld. He's got a small sample out there but oh my gosh…I would love to have several more Blofelds,” said Engler.

Some would glance at Mugatu's light record, with only one win, a second and two thirds from 12 career starts, and dismiss him as the underdog at the level he's now running at. But according to his connections, he's only just getting started, and a longer distance seems to be the key in unlocking his true potential on the dirt.

“One thing Joe Talamo said to me, several times is, 'He's still not giving us 100%.' And he said, 'When he gives us 100%, he's a Grade I winner.' So, that gives me hope that there's still 20% in him and I think there is, so we'll see,” said Engler. “I just really believe if we go on to get that mile-and-a-quarter distance, he's going to flourish.”

The chestnut colt will break from post one with Joe Bravo aboard in Saturday's 149th running of the second leg of the Triple Crown, with the field down to eight after the scratch of GISW and 'TDN Rising Star' Muth (Good Magic) due to a temperature.

For Engler and Preiss, it's a culmination of the hard work they've put in day in and day out and the close friendship they've forged along the way.

“It's pretty special because we're a small stable. We don't get the big budgets and the big horses. Dan is kind of in the same boat because he's new to the [bloodstock] industry, so he's not getting the big clients, and he's got to work five times harder to buy a $50,000 horse than somebody who's buying a $500,000 horse. But he does and he's very passionate about it.

“Obviously we're really good friends now and it's nice to see that hard work does pay off. So, one of these days, and hopefully it's soon with Mugatu, it pays off for both of us.”

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