Bob Baffert choked back tears and his voice cracked while he tried to juggle the conflicting feelings of seeing one of his horses win the Preakness Stakes hours after another was euthanized on the same track.
“This business is twists and turns, ups and downs,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “To win this – losing that horse today really hurt. … It’s been a very emotional day.”
National Treasure won the Preakness on Saturday in Baffert’s return to the Triple Crown trail following a suspension, ending Kentucky Derby champion Mage’s Triple Crown bid in the race Baffert has now captured more than any other trainer. But the joy was tempered by the agony of another 3-year-old colt, Havnameltdown, injuring his left front leg in an undercard race and being put down.
“When he got hurt, it’s just the most sickening feeling a trainer can have,” Baffert said. “It put a damper on the afternoon.”
It also put the sport squarely back in a familiar spot, two weeks after seven horses died in a 10-day span at Churchill Downs leading up to the Derby.
National Treasure did not run in the Derby at Churchill Downs, where Baffert has been barred the past two years because of a suspension stemming from 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit’s failed drug test that led to a disqualification in that race. Medina Spirit was Baffert’s most recent Preakness horse, finishing third.
The 5-2 second choice Saturday, National Treasure came through, delivering Baffert a record-breaking eighth victory in the Preakness and his 17th in a Triple Crown race, also the most among trainers. National Treasure held off hard-charging Blazing Sevens down the stretch to win the 1 3/16-mile, $1.65 million race by a head in 1:55.12.
“He fought the whole way,” said jockey John Velazquez, who won the Preakness for the first time in his 13th try. “He put up a really good fight. … That’s what champions do.”
National Treasure paid $7.80 to win, $4 to place and $2.60 to show. Blazing Sevens paid $5 to place and $2.80 to show.
Mage finished third after going off as the 7-5 favourite, paying $2.40 to show. Despite the smallest Preakness field since 1986, horses at the lead went much slower than in the Derby, which did not benefit Mage’s running style of closing late and passing tired rivals down the stretch.
“Slow, very slow,” Mage’s trainer, Gustavo Delgado Sr., said.
Mage’s defeat means there will not be a Triple Crown winner for a fifth consecutive year since Baffert’s Justify in 2018.
Baffert became the face of the sport after his American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015. Since Medina Spirit was disqualified from the Derby, though, Baffert has turned into a polarizing figure. In addition to his Churchill Downs punishment, he was forced to miss the Preakness and Belmont last year because of a related suspension in Kentucky that Maryland and New York honoured.
On Saturday, he was back at a major race – and, thanks to National Treasure, back in the winner’s circle.
“You can’t do it without the group of owners I have that have stuck by me through all of this negative, all this bad stuff that’s happened to me in the last few years,” Baffert said. “Days like this, it’s not really vindication. It’s just, I feel like we have a moment where we can enjoy it.”
Even that wasn’t simple, given the sombre scene earlier in the day, when Havnameltdown stumbled and unseated jockey Luis Saez.
While Saez was being attended to, black barriers were propped up on the dirt track while the horse was euthanized. All the while, 2 PAC’s “California Love” blared from the infield speakers at what is intended as an annual daylong celebration of thoroughbred racing.
“It felt like a knife to my heart when I saw it,” Velazquez said. “It’s devastating when you see it. When a horse suffers something like this – and the jockey on top of it – you feel it.”
Saez went to the hospital but was conscious, and his agent said X-rays were negative.
While expressing concern for Saez, Baffert said he was still grieving about Havnameltdown.
“We’re still sad about that horse, and we will be for a while,” he said.
While horse racing deaths in the U.S. are at their lowest level since they began being tracked in 2009, adding another at the track hosting a Triple Crown race will only intensify the internal and external scrutiny of the industry. Those inside it have said they accept the realities of on-track deaths of horses while also acknowledging more work needs to be done to prevent as many as possible.
In that vein, new national medication and doping rules are set to go into effect on Monday. The federally mandated Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which already regulated racetrack safety and other measures, will oversee drug testing requirements for horses that should standardize the sport nationwide for the first time.