Kentucky Derby winner Mage will face seven new shooters in the Preakness Stakes, and his owners, trainer and jockey are no doubt hoping the chestnut colt has enough left for another late burst to pass his well-rested competitors and capture the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Not since 1969 has only one Derby runner made the trip to run in Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.
At the Derby, where the field typically includes 20 runners, just about anything can happen — and has. Mage went off at 15-1, far from the type of favorite that’s “supposed” to win America’s most distinguished race. In 2022, Rich Strike, an alternate that didn’t have a place in the starting gate until the Friday before, won at 80-1. Heading into the Run for the Roses, a case can be made for just about any horse.
Only one contender can arrive at Old Hilltop saddled with the hope of becoming the 14th Triple Crown winner with all the buzz it entails. It’s one of the defining traits of the race but, prior to 2023, even that had not happened for several years.
The return of a true Triple Crown shot is just one of the major storylines heading into Preakness. Here are the things to look for.
1. Finally, another Derby winner runs with a shot at a Triple Crown
A Kentucky Derby winner has not run in Preakness with a chance to win the Triple Crown since 2018, when Justify overcame a sloppy track and withstood late charges from Bravazo and Tenfold en route to becoming the 13th horse to sweep the series. The next year, Country House, who was declared the Derby winner after the horse that crossed the finish line first, Maximum Security, was disqualified for a foul, skipped the race due to an illness. He hasn’t raced since.
In 2020, the three Triple Crown races were run out of order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Belmont Stakes going first. The eventual Derby winner, Authentic, had not entered Belmont, but the colt did run in Preakness and came in second to filly Swiss Skydiver.
Although Derby winner Medina Spirit came to Pimlico in 2021, controversy was already swirling around the result at Churchill Downs after a positive test for the corticosteroid betamethasone. After being subjected to additional drug testing in Baltimore, Medina Spirit ran in Preakness and came in third. Eventually, the horse was disqualified from the Derby and Mandaloun was elevated to first place.
And in 2022, after their horse’s historic upset, Rich Strike’s connections decided to rest the colt and skipped Preakness. Rich Strike hasn’t made it back to the winner’s circle in six tries.
2. Bob Baffert returns from suspension, goes for Preakness record with National Treasure
The California trainer’s bright white mane and tinted glasses are synonymous with the Triple Crown season for railbirds and casual observers alike. But Baffert missed all three races last year after the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission suspended his license for 90 days following Medina Spirit’s positive drug test. The Maryland Racing Commission determined a suspension in another state meant he couldn’t enter horses here.
Although a separate two-year suspension from Churchill Downs kept Baffert out of the 149th Kentucky Derby, he will send out National Treasure in an attempt to win a record-breaking eighth Preakness Stakes. With jockey John Velazquez in the irons, the Quality Road colt is 4-1 on the morning line.
Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner, is tied at seven titles with Robert Wyndham Walden, a late-19th century trainer based in Carroll County who won five straight years from 1878 to 1882.
3. Equine safety will be heavily scrutinized
Seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, including two that were euthanized after breakdowns during races on the undercard. An eighth died at the track Sunday. The spate of deaths made national headlines and resurfaced old debates about animal cruelty and the future of horse racing.
Few people outside of Maryland likely heard about a series of breakdowns, five fatal, at Laurel Park in April, which led to a standoff between the Maryland Jockey Club and local owners and trainers over the safety of that track’s racing surface. The two sides eventually came to an agreement on changes to the dirt track and racing resumed, but more injuries could stir up a fresh dispute.
And, in general, the sport’s caretakers can’t have a recurrence of what happened in Louisville if they want to continue to claim the safety of the equine athletes always comes first.
4. Brad Cox looks for personal Triple Crown with First Mission
Mage has been installed as the 8-5 morning line favorite, but First Mission, at 5-2, will certainly draw a lot of interest. The lightly raced dark bay colt has posted improved speed figures every time out, notching two wins, including the Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes, in his last two races. In his first race, he finished second by three-quarters of a length to stablemate Bishops Bay.
The son of Street Sense out of Elude has posted two sharp workouts this month, breezing five furlongs just under one minute in each. He’s in great form coming to Baltimore.
For Brad Cox, a win would mean he’s collected the personal Triple Crown in short order, further cementing his place as one of the top trainers in the country. Essential Quality won the 2021 Belmont Stakes for Cox on the way to being named the Eclipse Award Champion Three-Year-Old Male. And the record books show the Louisville native as the trainer for the horse with “first” next to his name for Mandaloun, who was ultimately declared winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
His best finish in Preakness is third, with Owendale in 2019. For perspective, Baffert is the only trainer in the field to collect all three races, and he twice did it in the same calendar year.
Steve Asmussen and Claude “Shug” McGaughey III also have two of the three, with McGaughey needing Preakness to complete the career set.
5. Will Coffeewithchris become the first Maryland-bred to win a Triple Crown race since 1983?
Kentucky is home to 200 stallions — many of them with brilliant racing careers and strong bloodlines — and accounts for about 40% of all the registered foals bred in North America each year, according to figures compiled by The Jockey Club. Not surprisingly, 115 Derby winners, 103 Preakness winners and 102 Belmont winners have hailed from the commonwealth.
Something must have been in the water in Maryland in 1980, because three years later horses bred in the Old Line State won not one but two Triple Crown races. Deputed Testamony, bred at Bonita Farm in Darlington, won Preakness in front of the home crowd, and then Caveat, representing Ryehill Farm in Carroll County, won Belmont.
It’s been all quiet since then, though plenty of others have tried. As recently as 2019, Maryland-bred Alwaysmining went off as one of the favorites at 6-1. He finished 11th in a 13-horse field.
Coffeewithchris has two stakes wins at Laurel Park on his résumé, the Heft and Miracle Wood, but has finished second and fifth in his last two races there. Facing much stiffer competition, Coffeewithchris has the second-longest odds in the Preakness field at 20-1.
Bonus trivia: Coffeewithchris would become the eighth gelding to win Preakness and first since Funny Cide in 2003.
6. Curlin’s legacy lives on
Half the field can trace their bloodlines back to the 2007 Preakness Stakes winner, who finished no worse than third in all the legs of the Triple Crown. Curlin was named Horse of the Year in 2007 and defended his title the next year with wins in four Grade 1 stakes races.
His second career as a stallion is well represented in Preakness. Three runners, including Mage, were sired by Good Magic, who finished fourth in the 2018 Preakness. The others are Perform and Blazing Sevens. Good Magic is the son of Curlin out of Glinda the Good.
And Coffeewithchris is the son of Ride on Curlin out of Andiemac. Ride on Curlin’s name is a nod to both his parents, Curlin and Magical Ride.
7. Will attendance rebound this year?
Last year’s Preakness was the first without crowd restrictions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 race was run in October with zero fans, and the 2021 race returned to its traditional slot on the third Saturday of May but with capacity capped at 10,000.
But only 42,055 fans attended last year’s race, according to figures from the Maryland Jockey Club. There are a few possible reasons: Derby winner Rich Strike, a historic underdog, skipped Preakness, and musical headliners Lauryn Hill and Megan Thee Stallion took the stage on Friday rather than Saturday.
Prior to the pandemic, the crowd exceeded 100,000 people each year going back to 2011.
Well, order could be restored this year. The Derby winner is in the building with a shot at the Triple Crown on the line, and the Maryland Jockey Club seemingly has course corrected on the entertainment lineup, scheduling Bruno Mars to perform after the last race on the Preakness card Saturday.