Trainer Bob Baffert often talks about the extreme highs and lows in horse racing. On Saturday, he experienced both by winning the Preakness Stakes seven races after watching one of his colts die on the track.
National Treasure, under a masterful ride by John Velazquez, upset Kentucky Derby winner Mage in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The win gave Baffert a record eighth Preakness win and Velazquez a victory in all three legs of the American Classics.
The Hall of Fame trainer had a wide range of emotions after the race trying to balance winning the race and losing Havnameltdown in the Chick Lang Stakes. In a postrace television interview, Baffert’s voice cracked as he struggled to share his thoughts about the day.
“This day was like a roller-coaster,” Baffert said later. “Started out great [when I won with Arabian Lion in the Sir Barton Stakes]. Then things went bad. When we lose a horse, it’s tough on everybody. We grieve. But then for this horse to come back and pull us out of that dark area that we were in … that’s why I love those horses.”
The race played out just as expected with National Treasure going to the lead as Velazquez tried to slow the early pace with the hopes of hanging on for the win. It mostly played out that way as National Treasure led all the way around the track until the top of the stretch in the 1 3/16-mile race. That’s when Blazing Sevens started to pull even and by mid-stretch even poked his nose in front.
Horses don’t usually come back at that point but Velazquez was able to coax more out of the colt and he moved back into the lead and won by a head. Mage had no excuses and was well positioned in the stretch but the slow early fractions kept the horses in front from tiring too much. Mage was third followed by Red Route One, Chase the Chaos, Perform and Coffeewithchris.
National Treasure was the second favorite behind Mage and paid $7.80 to win.
“What a moment,” Velasquez said. “All I can say, when you ride your best and you try to ride your best and the horse responds to everything you want to do. That’s all it takes, the horse giving you everything they can, and that’s what you hope for, and he did.”
For many, the day will not be remembered for how National Treasure fought back in the stretch but the gruesome sight when Havnameltdown broke his left front fetlock, similar to an ankle, but continued to run around the far turn into the stretch in severe distress as his jockey, Luis Saez, lay on the track.
After an outrider corralled the horse in mid-stretch, a dark screen circled the injured horse as Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer of 1/ST Racing, and other veterinarians determined the horse could not be saved and he was euthanized on the track. Saez was taken to nearby Sinai Hospital but was released after X-rays showed no problems.
“We do grieve when these things happen,” Baffert said shortly after the incident. “There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty. … He could not have been doing any better. It’s sickening. I am in shock.”
Saturday was Baffert’s first Triple Crown race in almost two years. He was suspended by Churchill Downs for two years after Medina Spirit tested positive for a race-day medication in 2021. Last year, he was serving a 90-day suspension during the Triple Crown series as the result of the positive test. He continues to fight in court the Medina Spirit disqualification and the suspension he has already served.
“It was tough,” Baffert said about the past two years. “We’ve had some tough moments. But it’s days like this that it’s not really vindication. … We have a moment where we enjoy what we do. We get rewarded for how hard everybody in my team works. To me, that’s mainly what it’s about.”
The death of Havnameltdown could not have come at a worse time for horse racing. Two weeks ago, the dangers of the sport were exposed at Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby. It started the week before when Wild On Ice, who had made the Derby field, suffered a training accident and was euthanized. The number of horse deaths started to rise in the ensuing days before the Derby and when the gates opened for the big race the count was at seven, all in a week and a half. Since then, two more horses have died at Churchill Downs, including one on Saturday.
The sport was looking for a feel-good story to divert attention from the deaths and thought it had found it in Mage winning the Derby. It was the first time in more than 50 years that a Latino owner, trainer and jockey had won the Derby. The week leading up to the Preakness had slowed the drumbeat of bad news.
And then Havnameltdown happened.
It was the 15th consecutive Triple Crown race won by a different horse. You have to go back to 2018 when Justify swept all three races, becoming the 13th winner of the Triple Crown. He was also trained by Baffert.
The horses will now move to New York in three weeks to compete in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes. Baffert said they had about 24 hours to figure out if they wanted to ship National Treasure to New York or fly him back to Santa Anita.
It will then be up to Belmont Park to change the current narrative of the sport, if it can.