Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert notched his record-breaking eighth Preakness win on Saturday with National Treasure, a promising colt that finally tapped into his potential in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
By winning the race, Baffert passed Robert Wyndham Walden, a late-19th century trainer based in Carroll County, for the Preakness victories record. The 70-year-old is a two-time Triple Crown winner, with American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), and took the Preakness in 2010 with Lookin at Lucky, 2002 with War Emblem, 2001 with Point Given, 1998 with Real Quiet and 1997 with Silver Charm.
And now he’s made it to the winner’s circle with National Treasure.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez had not been as lucky at Old Hilltop, failing to win Preakness in his first 12 tries. On Saturday, Velazquez was finally aboard the horse awarded the blanket of black-eyed Susans, giving him seven wins in the Triple Crown series.
After the race, Velazquez recalled how Baffert told him his “window is closing” to win the middle jewel.
“I told him his expiration date is getting a little bit close,” Baffert said, before praising the 51-year-old rider’s durability. “He’s a great rider, just like him, Mike Smith, all the top guys, you never heard of guys riding at this age. When you’re great, it’s like anything, you stay great.”
Passing the wire the first time, National Treasure went to the front trailed by Maryland-bred gelding Coffeewithchris, Blazing Sevens, Kentucky Derby winner Mage and Perform.
Not until the backstretch was National Treasure seriously pressured, and the son of Quality Road out of Treasure quickly fended off the challenge from Coffeewithchris, retaking the lead by almost a full length.
Chad Brown trainee Blazing Sevens moved up just behind the front-runner on the far turn, with Mage and Red Route One giving chase.
Coming down the stretch, Blazing Sevens drew even with National Treasure, the two colts side by side and sometimes bumping as they ran all out to cross the wire first. In the end, Baffert’s horse had just enough to push forward and win by a head.
“He fought the whole way. From the 3/16th pole home, he put in a really good fight,” Velazquez said. “He did not want to let that horse pass. And that’s what champions do. He got it done for me.”
Mage, the favorite at 7-5, made a spirited effort to catch them but finished 2 1/4 lengths back, settling for third place. As a result, there will not be a Triple Crown winner this year.
The final time was 1:55.12. National Treasure went off at 5-2 odds and paid $7.80 on a $2 win bet.
One of the Kentucky Derby winner’s many co-owners, Cary Tate, drove 11 hours from Indiana to see Mage race.
Despite watching his horse fall short, the 57-year-old donned a Mage hat after Preakness and said he’d had a great experience.
”We can’t hang our head at third,” he said. “We wanted first but third will do, and we hope to see him race again.”
Gustavo Delgado Jr., who is his father’s assistant training Mage, said the slow pace in the race hurt the late-charging Derby winner.
“The horses in front were going easy. Those horses, you don’t beat them” with that kind of pace, he said. “They always fight.”
For Baffert, it was a full-circle return after he had to sit out all three legs of the Triple Crown last year, including Preakness, because of a positive drug test for his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced in February 2022 that Medina Spirit was disqualified and Baffert’s license was suspended for 90 days. The Maryland Racing Commission determined a suspension in another state meant he couldn’t enter horses here.
While he acknowledged there were some tough times under such scrutiny, Baffert said he did his best to avoid the “noise.”
“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,’” he said.
Earlier Saturday, a Baffert-trained horse, Havnameltdown, broke down in the Chick Lang Stakes and was euthanized on the track.
Baffert acknowledged the emotional swings of the day during his remarks on the NBC broadcast, saying his team had been “wiped out” after their colt’s fatal injury in the sixth race.
“When we lose a horse, it’s tough on everybody. We grieve,” Baffert said at the postrace news conference. “But then for this horse to come back, to pull us out of that dark area that we were in — that’s why I love those horses. They try so hard.”
Havnameltdown’s jockey, Luis Saez, was taken to Sinai Hospital complaining of leg pain. He was later released, his agent said.
After breaking his maiden at first asking as a 2-year-old, National Treasure went on to have impressive showings in four graded stakes races. But the second win proved elusive.
The colt finished second in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita in October and third at the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland.
To start his 3-year-old season, he finished third in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes and fourth in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert said he could tell National Treasure was still “green” after his performance in the Santa Anita, which he ran under trainer Tim Yakteen in the hopes of making the Kentucky Derby field. Churchill Downs’ soon-to-expire ban on Baffert meant he could not enter the horse himself.
Once National Treasure didn’t make the Derby, Baffert consulted with Velazquez about putting blinkers on the horse to help him focus.
“We were hoping for something like this,” he said.
Baltimore Banner reporter Cadence Quaranta contributed to this report