BALTIMORE – And so the troubled sport of horse racing came on a warm and still May Saturday to crumbling old Pimlico Race Course, to have itself defined at the distant extremes of grief and euphoria by a pair of three-year-old bay colts, bought for a total of $700,000 by separate groups of people with very big dreams and even bigger means.
One horse named Havnameltdown, whose ankle snapped in flight, and who was put to death in the deep dirt on the far turn, behind an impotent black screen that shielded neither humans nor horses from the reality of the moment, while party music thundered in the background, and who was carted away in a big white wagon that’s always called a horse ambulance even though sometimes it’s a horse hearse. It was as bad as it gets.
And one named National Treasure, who more than five hours later went to the lead straight from the starting gate in the 148th running of the Preakness, the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, a good horse who nevertheless had won just one of his five races, with a slender – even more slender than most – 51-year-old jockey named John Velazquez straddling his back, making magic with his soft hands in pursuit of victory in one of the few great American races he had not already won. Together, man and horse navigating the oval as if trying not to make any noise, doling out speed and effort only as it was needed until in the end there was just enough to hold off Blazing Sevens in a sensational stretch duel, part race and rodeo, and relegate Kentucky Derby winner Mage to third place, meaning that there will be no Triple Crown on the line in the June 10 Belmont Stakes. It was as good as it gets.
And. There was more. Impossibly more, because context is everything and on Saturday at Pimlico there was more context than beer.
Both Havnameltdown’s death, statistically barely significant, yet in the moment both powerfully meaningful, gutting and likely unforgettable for most who witnessed it; and National Treasure’s victory came 14 days after the Derby, in which Mage’s win came at the end of 10 days in which seven horses died at Churchill Downs, and a record five were scratched from the body of the race, the most in nearly a century. The sport was reeling.
And the kicker: Both Havnameltdown and National Treasure are – well, were and are – trained by Bob Baffert, the 70-year-old, white-haired, shades-wearing Californian who less than a decade ago was the face, voice, and substance of racing, the sport riding on his shoulders, with two Triple Crowns – American Pharoah in 2015, ending a 37-year-drought; and Justify in 2018. But who, with the disqualification of Medina Spirit, crossed the finish line first in the 2021 Derby but failed a post-race drug test (this is all still in litigation), as the most recent in a series of drug positives and questionable explanations (which he still stands by), became the face, instead, of a sport in deep trouble.
Which is why, 55 minutes before the starting gate opened for the Preakness, Baffert stood outdoors in fading sunlight, near National Treasure’s stall in the Preakness stakes barn, and said, “This… game… is… brutal.” And… complicated. (Keep reading). He watched the Preakness from Pimlico’s ancient indoor saddling paddock, where he had watched on a small, 1990’s vintage TV as the track washed away in a thunderstorm minutes before Pharoah’s victory; and where on the same little screen he struggled to find Justify running through the fog three years later. There is a bigger TV now, mounted high on a wall. But Baffert seemed somehow and almost purposefully smaller, his reputation (although not the power of his stable) diminished by the events of the last three years even as he fights to recapture it. (The long-delayed Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act – HISA – goes into effect Monday, just in the nick of time, or much too late. We’ll see.)
Baffert was flanked by two of the sons who were often with him on the Triple Crown runs: Bode, 18; and Forrest, 33. “My boys,” Baffert would say after the race (he has two other sons, and a daughter). His wife, Jill, was nearby. Much of the scene could have been clipped from ’15 or ’18, but that is misleading, because nothing is the same as in those years (not for Baffert, not for those who have chronicled his work, and not for the sport, writ large, all of whom are scarred). And the memory of Havnameltdown hung in the air.
It was five-and-a half-hours earlier, in the sixth race, when Havnameltdown, a 3-year-old bay colt making his first start in three months, and favored at 4-5 odds to win the Chick Lang Stakes, a six-furlong sprint, moved astride Ryvit exiting at the far turn leaving the three-eighths pole, as the crowd rose for the pitched battle soon to follow. Baffert had already won a race on the card, a dominant four-length victory by Arabian Lion in the fourth race. This looked to be another one. “He was rolling,” Baffert would say later. “Looked like he was going to win.” Abruptly, Havnameltdown bobbled once, and then twice, his head dipping awkwardly toward the earth – always an ominous sign – before pitching hideously forward, heaving jockey Luis Saez over his neck and onto the track, and then trying to do the thing for which he was given life: To run. But he did not run. He staggered. The crowd gasped as one, another sound that once heard, is never forgotten.
Two ambulances arrived, a small one for the jockey and a big one for the horse. As W.C. Heinz wrote 74 years ago in the too-often quoted and stubbornly relevant Death Of A Racehorse, “There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance.” Those two makeshift black curtains were held up by track workers, ostensibly – to create a barrier between the audience and the activity, which is that Havnameltdown was found to have a “non-operable left fore fetlock injury,” (in human terms, a severely broken ankle) and was euthanized. Saez was taken to the hospital reporting leg pain; Baffert said later that Saez is “okay.”
There was a time – not that long ago – when a breakdown might have played more like an inconvenience. That time has passed, and the world has grown more sensitive to racing’s central paradox: Horses do not choose to race, and sometimes die (although there has been improvement in the last decade, from more than two deaths per one thousand starts, to 1.25 last year; it will never be zero). Havnameltdown’s death threw a pall over the day. Baffert said, “It’s the most sickening feeling a trainer can have. And we grieve when it happens. You just hate to go back and see that empty stall. We will feel bad about it for a while.” Baffert’s grief is surely real. But the larger reality is that Baffert will have to earn back trust in areas of horse safety and welfare from a large part of the public. He (and his wife) will view that as unfair, and time may prove it so. But this is today’s reality.
After Medina Spirit’s Derby DQ (again, still in the courts, and Baffert could eventually win. The outcome might lie years in the future), Baffert was handed a laundry list of punishments, including a two-year ban from the Derby (which he has won six – or seven – times), and a ban last year from all three Triple Crown races. The Preakness was Baffert’s return to the sport’s biggest stage, and that narrative was no less central than Mage’s attempt to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. Poor Mage.
Just seven horses started the Preakness, the smallest field since 1986; Mage was the only Kentucky Derby starter to roll back in the Preakness, the first time that’s happened since Triple Crown winner Citation was the only Derby winner that started in the 1948 Preakness. None of this will be engraved on the trophy. Mage went off as the 8-5 favorite; National Treasure was 3-1.
Velazquez started National Treasure from the inside post, never a good spot, but less damning in such a small field. National Treasure had raced five times, but just once since January, a dull fourth-place finish in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby, a key Kentucky Derby prep. He seemed to be a respectable, but unspectacular colt. Johnny V, as he is known in the game, nudged National Treasure into the lead and several paths out from the rail, forcing others to pass wide or risk an inside move. Then he nursed the pace: 23.95 seconds for the first quarter, 48.92 for a half-mile, a crawling 1:13.49 for three quarters. “I knew there wasn’t a lot of speed,” said Velazquez. “So I pumped it to the outside and if those other horses wanted to go faster, I would let them go.”
None did, a miscalculation that left National Treasure in control of the race. Longshot Coffeewithchris ran with him early. Mage dawdled in fourth, not challenging. “No speed in the race, horses were going easy,” said Gustavo Delgado, Jr. assistant to his father, who trains Mage. “Those horses, you don’t beat them with that pace.”
It was Blazing Sevens who made the big run. Ridden by reigning Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr. and trained by two-time Preakness winner Chad Brown, Blazing Sevens hooked National Treasure in the stretch, and they bumped each other several times, rough riding; but could not pass. “The key was Johnny slowing the pace on the backstretch,” said Ortiz. “Just could not get past him.”
National Treasure dipped his head at the wire, stretching what looked like a nose to a very short, official head. In the dank, dark paddock, Baffert threw his head back and was embraced by his sons. Over against a wall, Jill Baffert wept. It was a nice moment, in a very small bottle, a slice of what had been and what makes the sport breathe. But it was just a moment, while Havnameltdown is just a memory. Much work lies ahead.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.