It’s Triple Crown season, and the horses we are dealing with are three-year-olds. With this group of thoroughbred racehorses, sometimes promise leads to greatness, and sometimes it leads to disappointment and a failure to move forward in their growth. We entered Kentucky Derby week feeling that Forte was a deserving favorite who would deliver his usual solid performance. Instead, he didn’t even make it to the starting gate, as Kentucky state veterinarians felt that a bruise to his right front hoof was serious enough to order him scratched.
Then, there was the pace issue, with so many experts saying there was no speed in the race. Instead, we got a sub-46 second half mile that set the race up for closers and cooked most of those who were on the pace. How about the disappointment factor? Some of the perceived best horses in the race simply did not move forward. To name a few of them, Tapit Trice, Derma Sotogake and Verifying were all beaten by eight lengths or more.
Who was left to deliver a strong performance? How about Mage, who was an X-factor horse in the race – He entered the Kentucky Derby with only three starts in his career, and his final prep in the Florida Derby was a second-place finish to Forte where he only lost by one length. That race was a big improvement over his second start in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, where Forte beat him by nearly seven lengths. Also, he had shown progressively better speed figures in those three starts, a pattern which indicated that improvement was a strong possibility in Louisville. He ran a great race under the guidance of veteran jockey Javier Castellano, and he was a deserving winner. Praise should also go out to the second-place finisher, Two Phil’s, who was the only horse from the front of the pack who remained to be a factor at the wire. I was among many handicappers who dismissed his win in the Jeff Ruby Steaks because they doubted the quality of the field and the fact that the race was run on a synthetic surface. He proved himself to be a solid runner who will earn a good deal of money under the guidance of trainer Larry Rivelli.
RELATED: Mage leads 2023 Preakness Stakes odds as post positions are announced
Before moving on to the Preakness, it is necessary to acknowledge and discuss the equine fatalities that happened at Churchill Downs leading up to and including Kentucky Derby day. Since that day, casual fans and non-fans have approached me, and the first question they ask is about those fatalities. This is a discussion that should be broken into two parts. The first part is the deaths of two horses trained by Saffie Joseph, Jr., both of whom died suddenly and inexplicably, either within a race or just after it. Kentucky officials suspended the trainer from running horses at Churchill until results of a necropsy on those horses became available. This was done citing caution — if there was a condition within that barn, or in the feed for the horses that led to these deaths, it was safer to not have his horses run there as the facts are awaited. The decision led also led to the scratch from the Derby of Joseph’s Wood Memorial winner, Lord Miles.
The other fatalities were the result of injuries that occurred either during racing or training. Churchill Downs is generally known for having properly groomed racing surfaces, but they are further investigating whether track conditions were a factor. Finally, there is the overall issue of safety in the sport. On a national basis, equine fatalities are down significantly. Santa Anita, as an example, has gone from a track which had a string of incidents a few years back to the most statistically safe major track in the country. As recent weeks have reminded us, there is much work still to be done to minimize the inherent risks of a sport where horses move at almost 40 mph while being ridden by a human being, but we should also recognize major strides forward that have been made in equine medicine and equine safety. No equine deaths are like the mathematical universe that will never be fully achieved, but the sport is moving forward with the best of intentions and implementing changes that have helped. This is a tough period for racing, and time and investigations will hopefully provide answers to the unfortunate circumstances of the past couple of weeks at Churchill Downs.
Key Storylines for 2023 Preakness Stakes
Discussion of the Preakness Stakes must begin with Mage, the Kentucky Derby winner. He was simply the best horse in Louisville, enduring a wide but winning move. Given the fact that Two Phil’s and Angel of Empire, who finished second and third in the Derby, are not moving on to Baltimore, it can be said that Mage holds a significant speed figure advantage over the rest of the Preakness field. He is a horse that has shown his best running from off the pace, but under the deft handling of Hall of Fame jockey Castellano and the experienced management of trainer Gustavo Delgado, he should be adaptable in a smaller field this time around. It will take a significant step forward for others in the Preakness field to challenge Mage if he continues his pattern of improvement from race to race.
RELATED: How to watch the 2023 Preakness Stakes
The likely second choice in the Preakness is the Brad Cox-trained First Mission. His last start was a winning one in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Similar to Mage, he is lightly raced, as the Lexington was only his third career start, so he has a license to improve. That said, he had a golden trip in the Lexington, sitting behind a slow pace and powering by the front runners in the final furlong.
Bob Baffert has won the Preakness seven times, and he will enter National Treasure in the race. A highly regarded two-year-old who finished third last year in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he has disappointed and not shown significant improvement since then. The Santa Anita Derby was his last start, and he finished fourth, beaten by nearly three lengths. The Baffert name will draw attention to him, but at this point in time, I don’t feel he matches up to Mage.
There are two other really interesting candidates in the Preakness Stakes in the form of Blazing Sevens and Perform. Blazing Sevens, like National Treasure, has followed up a solid year as a two-year-old with minimal improvement since he turned three. He was third to Tapit Trice last time out in the Blue Grass Stakes, but he was beaten by six lengths. Trainer Chad Brown felt that he didn’t have him as ready as he would’ve liked for the Kentucky Derby, so he waited for this race. Both Preakness wins by Chad Brown (Cloud Computing in 2017 and Early Voting in 2022) came with horses that made their Triple Crown debut in the Preakness, a pattern that he is repeating with Blazing Sevens. In the hands of a lesser trainer, I would give less attention to Blazing Sevens, but Brown, the four-time Eclipse Award winner, is handling this horse in a way that has twice led to Preakness victories. Blazing Sevens has to be given a credible chance in the Preakness.
RELATED: Mage’s Kentucky Derby win: A salve for horse racing’s wounds
Finally, in my world, there are few trainers that I respect more than Hall-of-Famer Shug McGaughey. He is entering the Preakness with Perform, a son of 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic. This is an unusual entry, as the horse was not originally nominated for the Triple Crown, and his owners had to pay a supplementary entry fee of $150,000. Clearly, they were inspired to pay this fee after his most recent race in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel, a race whose winner gets an automatic invite to the Preakness. Perform may not have speed figures to compare with the top horses here, but his win in the Tesio was a wild ride. Jockey Feargal Lynch had to overcome so much trouble in that trip that it seemed he was steering Perform like a Formula One race car. Despite a stumble at the start and being repeatedly blocked, Lynch managed to weave through the pack with Perform and get up to win by a head at the wire. Again, I don’t know if Perform is fast enough to win here, but he showed toughness that is necessary in Triple Crown races. He’ll have to run the best race of his life, but he’s already proven that he can handle adversity.
This Preakness may not have the unpredictable elements of an 18-horse field in the Kentucky Derby, but it’s shaping up as quite a horse race. Mage will be a deserving favorite, and if he wins, he’ll have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown. On the other hand, while the win in Louisville was impressive, there are several players in this field who enter with a legitimate chance to win. Once again, these are three-year-olds, and race-to-race improvement, in steps big and small, can happen when they step on the track. That is the unknown factor that often leads to upsets in the Triple Crown races.