BALTIMORE – Mage winning the Kentucky Derby gave horse racing a welcome distraction.
After seven horses died at Churchill Downs over a span of 10 days, the sport got a winner with a unique story. No conglomerate owners, no big-name trainers. Mage is the first Derby winner with ties to Venezuela in more than half a century, and nearly 400 people can call themselves one of his co-owners.
Mage can make them all even happier if he can win the Preakness on Saturday and keep alive the chance for a Triple Crown.
“I had been working on this goal for many years,” trainer Gustavo Delgado Sr. said through an interpreter in his office at Pimlico on Thursday. “It would be a reward for our work and our sacrifices. And also, it would mean a lot to give back to all the people that have believed in me: my family, the owners and the people that have been involved with the horse.”
Nearly everyone involved on a daily basis with running the horse is from Venezuela: Delgado and son Gustavo Jr., exercise rider J.J. Delgado and jockey Javier Castellano, who won the Derby in his 16th try. Gustavo Delgado Jr. said Mage’s success means “everything” back home.
“It means a lot to my country because they deserve it: They need something to feel proud of,” he said. “It’s about (showing) that we’re capable, too, and in a good way it’s a blessing for my country.”
A blessing but not a coincidence, 52 years after Venezuelan champion Canonero II won the Derby and Preakness. Delgado Sr. – known affectionately as “Puma” – won the Venezuelan Triple Crown twice before turning his attention to the U.S. It was his goal to find horses good enough to compete at the elite levels of racing here.
After 18th- and 13th-place finishes in the Derby in 2016 and ’19, he found Mage – the horse who delivered for the Delgados and beyond.
Gustavo Jr. owns a 25% stake, blood stock agent Ramiro Restrepo 25% and Sam Sterling 25%. The other 25% belongs to Commonwealth, a group that sells micro shares to anyone who wants to get in on a thoroughbred racehorse for as little as $50.
There are 382 stakeholders in Mage all over the U.S. and in roughly a dozen other countries around the world, down to single-share owners.
“We have people from all walks of life: We have executives and surgeons, and we have factory workers and laborers,” said Chase Chamberlin, Commonwealth co-founder and head of racing. “The reactions are all the same. When that horse crossed the finish line … you forget how many shares you have. You feel like the king of the world.”
One of Mage’s owners, Rebecca Vesty, died in April after fighting breast cancer for several years. Chamberlin later learned that multiple horse shows full of people who knew her stopped to watch the Derby and got to see NBC Sports tell her story after Mage won.
In the winner’s circle with Commonwealth co-founder Brian Doxator, Chamberlin had a thought.
“What good is a great stage unless you can share it with others?” he recalled. “These horses allow us to connect with people in such profound ways and in so many ways that we don’t even realize.”
Restrepo, whose grandfather emigrated from Colombia, realizes it from spending his entire life around horse racing. It was a family dream to have a horse in the Derby, let alone win it, and Restrepo said, “A genie in a bottle couldn’t have granted a better wish than that.”
More than three decades since watching Easy Goer and Sunday Silence go neck and neck down the stretch in the 1989 Preakness, Restrepo this week spoke about enjoying the race no matter where Mage finishes.
“There’s no need for us to put added human pressure of expectations on a horse,” Restrepo said. “He’s going to race. He’s going to give his best effort and on our end, just soak it all in, take this all in and enjoy it and just love the process.”
Doxator described his role as a full-circle moment, returning to Baltimore with the Derby winner long after he lived there and watched Afleet Alex, Bernardini and Curlin win the Preakness from 2005-07. Mage is a grandson of Curlin and will have about 100 co-owners cheering him on at Pimlico.
“The fact that this wild idea has turned into something that has had this ripple effect and brought so much joy to so many people, that’s really what it’s about,” Doxator said. “We all share in that emotion and and we’re all forever connected by it.”