Preakness win was a bittersweet day for trainer Bob Baffert in return from suspension

Bob Baffert won a race but lost a horse on what was an emotional Saturday for the embattled trainer at Pimlico Race Course.

Baffert’s National Treasure won the 148th Preakness Stakes, giving the trainer his record eighth victory in the race while ending Kentucky Derby winner Mage’s quest for the Triple Crown.

But National Treasure’s front-running win was tempered by the death of one of Baffert’s other horses — Havnameltdown — earlier on the card.

“This day was like a roller coaster,” the silver-haired Baffert said afterward. “When we lose a horse, it’s tough on everybody. We grieve. But then for this horse to come back, to pull us out of that dark area that we were in….”

The sport has been in a dark area for weeks and, for Baffert in particular, years. Seven horses died at Churchill Downs during Derby week, and Baffert on Saturday was on hand at a Triple Crown race for the first time since the 2021 Preakness when Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit finished third. Medina Spirit was later disqualified from his Derby win for a failed drug test, and Churchill Downs slapped Baffert with a two-year suspension.

But Baffert was back on Saturday, and when his Arabian Lion won the Sir Barton, the fourth race, the day looked bright. It didn’t last. Two races later, Havnameltdown broke down in the Chick Lang Stakes. Jockey Luis Saez was thrown and whisked off to a hospital. The colt was euthanized on the track.

“Started out great,” Baffert said of the day. “Then things went bad.”

And it remained that way for the shaken trainer until National Treasure received a savvy ride from Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, nursing the seven-horse field along in slow fractions and reserving the 3-year-old’s strength for the stretch, where he held off Blazing Sevens to win by a head. Mage was third, 2 1/2 lengths further behind in third.

“Very emotional,” Baffert said. “The rest of the day, you just couldn’t enjoy the day. I really couldn’t get into the race. [But] when he hit the wire, that’s when I started enjoying the race. Once he hit the wire, he just brought us back.”

The win for Velazquez, who has won nearly every major U.S. race, was his first in the Preakness in what was his 13th attempt. Velazquez, regarded as one of the sport’s headiest riders, took National Treasure to the lead and slowed the pace, preserving the colt’s energy for the stretch. The tactic doomed Mage, who prefers to drop far back, wait for the frontr-unners to wear themselves out and launch his winning kick in the stretch.

But jockey Javier Castellano, instantly sensing trouble with the slow pace, settled into a close stalking position, only a few lengths behind National Treasure. To drop far back would have left Mage with an impossible task.

“The way it developed, the way it unfolded, it was a disadvantage for the horses coming from behind,” Castellano said. “I didn’t want to be too far back because I knew there would not be a lot of speed in the race. Those other two horses (National Treasure and Blazing Sevens) opened up and the race was over. I could not catch those horses.”

The defeat brought an end to Mage’s quest to win all three races in the series — the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — in what is the 50th anniversary year of Secretariat’s memorable sweep. The smallish colt’s Derby triumph brought joy to two continents, as Castellano and trainer Gustavo Delgado hail from Venezuela while core owners Ramiro Restrepo (a University of Miami graduate) and Gustavo Delgado Jr. each live in South Florida, where the horse had spent the winter training.

“The horses in front were going easy,” said Gustavo Jr., who also serves as his father’s assistant trainer. “Those horses, you don’t beat them [with that pace]. We took the shot. It was worth the shot, and we got beat. We’ll regroup, take our time and see what’s next for him Nobody is going to take the Derby from him.”

The pace scenario might have turned out differently if First Mission had been in the race. First Mission is typically forwardly placed in his races and might have applied early pressure to National Treasure, enough so to sap that colt’s strength. But regulatory veterinarians detected slight lameness with the colt two days before the Preakness and, with the sport under the microscope, ordered that he be scratched, just as likely Kentucky Derby favorite Forte had to be scratched just before the Derby with a hoof issue.

Horse racing is taking no chances. But they can’t catch everything, as Saturday proved when Havnameltdown gave his life.

“We never had an issue with him,” Baffert said. “We are so careful with all these horses, and it still happens. It’s the worst feeling. There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty. It’s sickening. I am in shock.”

Baffert sounded emotional after National Treasure’s Preakness returned the trainer to the winner’s circle, his voice wavering.

“This game, there’s a lot of twists and turns, and you’ve just got to get through it,” he said. “I had a lot of professional sports people telling me: You’ve got to keep the noise out. Just keep doing what you’re doing, get through it, and everything will be fine.”