Editor’s note: First Mission was scratched from the Preakness field the day before the race.
Pace makes the race.
It’s about the oldest adage in thoroughbred racing and yet was never truer than in this year’s Kentucky Derby. That day, a wicked early pace sapped the strength and will of all but the heartiest of the front-runners, creating a dream scenario for horses short on early speed but long on closing kick.
Hours before the Derby, most observers would have pegged Forte as the exemplar of such a horse. But that morning a Kentucky state veterinarian decided, over Forte’s connections’ protests, that a minor but lingering hoof bruise would not permit the horse to compete.
That sequence of events opened the door for Mage — a horse Forte had defeated twice previously — and the 3-year-old son of Good Magic took advantage. Under a patient ride by Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, Mage rallied from well off the early leaders — 16th after the opening half-mile went by in a swift 45.73 seconds — to run down Two Phil’s to win by a length.
Mage thus arrives in Baltimore for Saturday’s 148th edition of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as the star of the show, the only horse with a shot at a Triple Crown. He’s made only four career starts, has plenty of upside still, has already won America’s most famous race and has a last-out Beyer Speed Figure — a number handy for comparing the relative speeds of races run in different places and at different distances — that is fully seven points higher than his nearest rival’s.
For good measure, Forte remains ineligible to compete, and none of Mage’s 17 Derby rivals came for crab cakes.
So: Mage is a sure thing, right?
Not so fast.
Two factors argue at least for considering some of his rivals.
The first is what handicappers call value. That is, the likelihood of the horse’s winning as compared to the odds you expect to receive. As the Derby winner, and with other factors in his favor, Mage is likely to be a strong Preakness favorite. He’s 8-5 on the morning line, and many observers expect he’ll go off shorter than that.
As Tom Hanks’ character put it in “Big”: What’s fun about that?
The other factor circles us back to where we started. Although the Derby, admittedly unexpectedly, turned into a sizzling speed duel among several horses, the Preakness looks — on paper — to be a more sedate affair in the early going. Only three of the runners — National Treasure (4-1), First Mission (5-2) and local hopeful Coffeewithchris (20-1) — have consistent histories of getting themselves involved early in races. None of them is a need-the-lead type.
For the most part, the rest of the eight-horse field figures to be dawdling along in the early stages of the Middle Jewel. If no one’s in a hurry early, the pace might be tepid. That could jeopardize Mage’s chances — and those of every other closer in a race full of them.
If a strong early pace doesn’t materialize, then what? That should provide the advantage to the three horses with a bit of early kick.
For Marylanders, the home team is composed of Coffeewithchris. A Maryland-bred trained at Laurel Park by Maryland native John Salzman Jr., Coffeewithchris won a couple of the local stakes but was a bit of a surprise entrant in Preakness, reflected in his 20-1 morning line odds.
But, as his trainer points out, a short field of just eight runners and a dearth of early speed make this a perfect shot for local connections to take a swing.
Cofffeewithchris owns three wins from a dozen starts, most in the race, and two of those came in local stakes company. Top Maryland pilot Jaime Rodriguez has the mount.
“It’s gonna be hard, but [Mage] comes from far back, and at Pimlico it’s tougher with the sharper turns. And, with the lack of speed, it seems to be a little in our favor,” Salzman said. “I’m not saying we’re gonna beat [Mage], but he’s gotta come back in two weeks, with the shipping and everything. I’m here waiting and I’m fresh.”
Mage’s connections acknowledge that the brief two-week period from Derby to Preakness is uncharted waters for them. The colt has never raced on less than four weeks’ rest.
While the Bob Baffert-trained National Treasure (4-1) is, with the rail post and blinkers on, the most likely front-runner, it might be First Mission (5-2) breaking from the outside in the best position. The Brad Cox trainee won the Lexington Stakes last time out under jockey Luis Saez, who returns for Preakness, and has won both his two-turn races. The moment the Lexington was complete, Cox said Preakness was the goal.
“We’ve liked him for a while now,” the trainer said. “Always thought that he’d be a horse that was at his best around two turns. Maybe even further than this today. We certainly think he could get, I don’t know, a mile and 3/16 [the Preakness distance] maybe.”
First Mission and Saez have plenty of tactical speed to find an optimal spot with the ability to eyeball what happens inside of them and go from there. Like Mage, he’s very lightly raced, and while he hasn’t been tested in quite the same crucible as that rival, like him, he’s a horse with major potential.
One other runner worth a look is Blazing Sevens (6-1). The late-running Chad Brown trainee won the Grade 1 Champagne last year and was a credible fourth — behind Forte — in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall. He hasn’t quite gone on yet this season, but his third-place finish in the Blue Grass, one of the major Kentucky Derby preps, wasn’t bad and could presage a move forward that would make him a major player here.
One notable fact: Trainer Brown has won the Preakness twice, both times with horses that did not run in the Kentucky Derby. Though Blazing Sevens had the points to run in the Derby, Brown and the ownership decided to sit tight and wait for this spot, thinking he needed a bit more seasoning before tackling the toughest races. You can assume he’s ready for this one.
The rest of the field:
- No. 2 Chase the Chaos (50-1) has raced eight times, but seven were on a synthetic surface. His lone dirt try was poor, and he’d be a major surprise.
- No. 5 Red Route One (10-1), for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, won the Bath House Row at Oaklawn Park last. But he’s a deep closer and his tries against higher-class company have been only so-so.
- No. 6 Perform (15-1) won Laurel’s Federico Tesio Stakes with a bold late rally — Coffeewithchris was fifth in that event — and is 2-for-2 in distance races around two turns. His connections paid $150,000 at the last moment to get him into this race.
As a betting matter, the last four Preakness winners have paid at least 5.70-1. Looking back to 2008, the exacta — a bet that involves picking the winner and second-place finisher in order — has always paid at least $18.20 for a $2 wager and sometimes much more. In 2019, the War of Will-Everfast exacta paid more than $945 on a $2 wager.
The lesson: Look for a long shot in your exacta.
Mage looks to be the best of these, but the likely short odds on him and the expected pace scenario push us in a different direction. Look for First Mission to sit just off the early pace of National Treasure, take over near the quarter-pole and go on to win.
The top four:
- First Mission (5-2).
- Blazing Sevens (6-1): He and Mage are the only two with a Grade 1 win (racing’s highest level) in the field.
- Mage (8-5): Too short to take on top, too good to leave off the ticket.
- Coffeewithchris (20-1): Might not be — heck, probably isn’t — good enough, but you gotta root for the local guys.
Good luck and happy Preakness!
Frank Vespe, the founder and publisher of The Racing Biz (www.theracingbiz.com), has owned, bought, sold, claimed, written and talked about horses, in varying combinations, for a decade. Follow him on twitter @TheRacingBiz.