The Preakness Stakes, a race filled with joy and sorrow, unfolded in Baltimore with renowned trainer Bob Baffert at the center of it all. Baffert fought back tears and struggled to find his words as he navigated the conflicting emotions of one of his horses winning the race while another had to be euthanized on the same track.
“This business is a roller coaster of twists and turns, filled with ups and downs,” Baffert lamented, his voice cracking with grief. “To experience this victory today, but also to suffer the loss of another horse—it truly hurt. It has been an incredibly emotional day.”
In Baffert’s return to the Triple Crown trail following a suspension, his horse National Treasure emerged as the winner of the Preakness Stakes. However, this triumph was overshadowed by the tragic fate that befell another 3-year-old colt named Havnameltdown, who had to be put down due to a severe left leg injury suffered during an undercard race held earlier in the day.
The victory by National Treasure, the 5-2 second favorite, came after a fierce battle against hard-charging Blazing Sevens. In a nail-biting finish, National Treasure held on to win the 1 3/16-mile, $1.65 million race by a mere head, crossing the finish line in 1:55.12. Jockey John Velazquez praised the horse’s resilience, stating, “He fought the whole way. He put up a really good fight… That’s what champions do.”
National Treasure rewarded its backers with payouts of $7.80 to win, $4 to place, and $2.60 to show, while Blazing Sevens paid $5 to place and $2.80 to show. The favored horse, Mage, finished third, paying $2.40 to show. Unfortunately, the slow pace set by the leaders in the race did not favor Mage’s closing running style, which relies on passing tired rivals in the latter stages. Mage’s trainer, Gustavo Delgado Sr., expressed disappointment, describing the race as “slow, very slow.”
With Mage’s defeat, the hopes of a Triple Crown winner for the fifth consecutive year were dashed, following Baffert’s triumph with Justify in 2018. Baffert, who gained prominence in the sport after ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah in 2015, has faced increased scrutiny and controversy since Medina Spirit’s disqualification from the Kentucky Derby. Alongside his punishment at Churchill Downs, he was unable to participate in the Preakness and Belmont last year due to a related suspension in Kentucky, which Maryland and New York honored.
On Saturday, Baffert returned to a major race and, thanks to National Treasure’s victory, found himself back in the winner’s circle. This win marked Baffert’s eighth Preakness victory, surpassing 19th-century trainer R. Wyndham Walden for the most wins in the race.
Reflecting on the day’s events, Baffert expressed gratitude for the owners who stood by him during the challenging times. “Days like this, it’s not really vindication. It’s just a moment where we can enjoy it,” he said.
However, even amidst the celebrations, the day was overshadowed by the somber incident earlier, when Havnameltdown stumbled and unseated jockey Luis Saez. The horse was euthanized due to its injuries, while Saez was attended to and taken to the hospital. The incident served as a stark reminder of the risks associated with horse racing and added fuel to the ongoing discussions surrounding equine safety. As black barriers were erected on the dirt track and the horse was put to rest, the loudspeakers blared 2Pac’s “California Love,” creating a jarring contrast to the intended festive atmosphere of the day, dedicated to the sport of thoroughbred racing.
Jockey John Velazquez, deeply affected by the tragic scene, expressed his devastation, saying, “It felt like a knife to my heart when I saw it. It’s devastating when you witness something like this, especially for the horse and the jockey on top of it. You can feel it.” Saez, although conscious, was taken to the hospital for further evaluation, with initial X-rays showing no fractures.
While Baffert expressed concern for Saez’s well-being, he remained mournful over the loss of Havnameltdown. “We are still grieving for that horse, and it will take time,” Baffert shared, his sadness palpable.
Despite the strides made in reducing on-track horse deaths, with the United States experiencing its lowest level since 2009, the occurrence of another fatality at a Triple Crown race venue intensifies both internal and external scrutiny of the horse racing industry. Industry insiders recognize the need to accept the unfortunate reality of such incidents while emphasizing the importance of ongoing efforts to prevent them.
In line with these efforts, new national medication and doping regulations are set to take effect on Monday. The federally mandated Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which already oversees racetrack safety measures, will now also assume responsibility for standardized drug testing requirements nationwide, marking a significant step forward for the sport.
Amidst the triumph and tragedy that unfolded at the Preakness Stakes, the racing community grapples with the complex mix of emotions that come with the highs and lows of this demanding and passionate sport. As conversations surrounding equine welfare continue, stakeholders remain committed to striving for a safer and more sustainable future for thoroughbred racing.