What to Watch for in the 2023 Preakness Stakes

Amid the deaths and scratches that surrounded this year’s Kentucky Derby, the feel-good stories about the winner, Mage, were overshadowed. But there’s a lot to like about the fast-developing colt as he heads into the 148th running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

He was only the third horse to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old and the fourth to win it with only three previous starts. Another horse that did both? Justify, the most recent Triple Crown winner, in 2018.

Mage’s only two losses have come against Forte, the morning-line favorite for the Derby who was scratched the day of the race. Now Mage is the lone Derby contender in the Preakness, and his biggest foe, First Mission, was scratched on Friday.

Mage’s trainer, Gustavo Delgado Sr., won the Venezuelan Triple Crown twice before coming to the United States in 2014 to set his sights on winning America’s biggest races.

“I just wanted to get to the Kentucky Derby, and we did, but this horse, we knew he was very, very good,” said Delgado Sr., who has saddled three horses in the Derby.

His son, Gustavo Delgado Jr., said his father was inspired by the success of the Venezuelan connections who won the Derby and the Preakness with Canonero II in 1971.

“He grew up in a generation where everybody was talking about it, and he always felt like he could accomplish that,” said Delgado Jr., who is his father’s assistant. “I remember when I was a kid, because when he was successful down in Venezuela, he would always tell me, ‘One day, we should go to the States and win one of those races.’”

Mage’s jockey, Javier Castellano, and his exercise rider, J.J. Delgado (no relation), are also from Venezuela. Castellano’s father and J.J. Delgado used to ride for Delgado Sr. there.

Castellano said he was motivated heading into the Derby when he saw the NBC broadcast’s mention of his 0‑for-15 record in the race. He has enjoyed more success in the Preakness, winning in 2006 with Bernardini and in 2017 with Cloud Computing.

Another challenge for the Delgados when they came to the United States was finding good horses and owners who believed in them. In Mage’s case, the Delgados teamed up with the bloodstock agent Ramiro Restrepo, whose family emigrated from Colombia before he was born, at the Fasig‑Tipton 2‑year‑old sale in Timonium, Md. They liked that the horse was a near replica of his sire, Good Magic, who finished second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness.

They liked him so much that they went over their budget, spending $290,000. So they called up a few people to help share the costs, including the real estate investor Sam Herzberg and the entrepreneurs Brian Doxtator and Chase Chamberlin, whose Commonwealth app allows fans to buy shares in racehorses for a little as $50.

And so that melting pot of a group rode Mage straight into the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May, leading to perhaps the biggest winner’s circle party in Derby history — even Mage looked small in the middle of it.

About 80 of the 382 people who invested in Mage through Commonwealth were there. One of them was Norma Barnes-Euresti from Michigan. When her wheelchair got stuck on the track, Gerardo Corrales and Jose Ortiz, who had just rode in the Derby, carried her the rest of the way.

“I don’t have legs today, but I got the ride of a lifetime,” she said on NBC, speaking about the jockeys’ kindness and, of course, her Triple Crown contender Mage.

After seven horses died at Churchill Downs ahead of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes officials are taking a cautious approach. First Mission, the 5-2 second choice in the morning line, was scratched from the race early Friday morning with an unspecified left hind-ankle injury.

The colt is trained by Brad Cox and owned by the Godolphin stable, which belongs to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. First Mission was coming off an impressive victory in the Lexington Stakes last month at Keeneland, but his trainer noticed something was off after training on Wednesday, and on Friday, the veterinarian team for 1/ST racing, which owns Pimlico Race Course, scratched the horse.

Michael Banahan, Godolphin U.S.A.’s director of bloodstock, said First Mission would be sent back to Lexington, Ky., for a full exam.

“They thought maybe it was a minor issue with the left hind ankle — you just really couldn’t do proper diagnostics on site, on the track,” Banahan said. “He was doing great at Pimlico. But that’s the way it goes.”

The extra scrutiny is being extended to every horse competing here over the weekend. Officials are requiring two veterinary authorizations before a horse is allowed to run — one from the trainer’s private vet, the other from the regulatory vet in the state where the horse was stabled before coming to Baltimore.

The scratch of First Mission makes this the first time since 1986 that the Preakness will have only seven horses, which makes an already weak field weaker. The second leg of the Triple Crown has not included only one Derby contender since 1948, when Citation ran and won. He then prevailed in the Belmont Stakes and swept the Triple Crown.

The Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is returning to the Triple Crown stage after his colt Medina Spirit failed a drug test after winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Medina Spirit was allowed to run in the Preakness but finished a well-beaten third.

Baffert has since served a suspension handed down by Kentucky regulators and a two-year ban from the Derby and Churchill Downs. Last year, Baffert was serving his Kentucky suspension during the Triple Crown, so the racing commissions in Maryland and New York kept him from the Preakness and the Belmont.

Now he returns with National Treasure, the fourth-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby, to seek a record-breaking eighth victory in the Preakness. He is currently tied with the 19th-century trainer R. Wyndham Walden.

Baffert’s first three Derby-Preakness winners — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) — were unable to complete the Triple Crown sweep at Belmont Park. But the last two, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018, got the job done.

The Hall of Famer John Velazquez will be aboard National Treasure, who was 3-1 in the morning line. The colt has won only once but was competitive in the premier races in California and Kentucky. He was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Forte.

“I think he fits here,” Baffert told reporters this week. “He will have to step it up. He is a horse that has not filled into his frame yet, but we have always been high on him. He hasn’t really run a bad race.”

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