BALTIMORE — Bob Baffert choked back tears and his voice cracked while trying to juggle the feelings of one of his horses winning the Preakness Stakes and another being euthanized on the same track.
“This business is twists and turns, the ups and downs,” he said. “To win this — losing that horse today really hurt. … It’s been a very emotional day.”
National Treasure won the Preakness on Saturday in Baffert’s return to the Triple Crown trail following a suspension, but it came hours after another 3-year-old colt, Havnameltdown, was put down because of a left leg injury in an undercard race. The victory at Pimlico Race Course ended Mage’s bid for the Triple Crown in a conflicting scene similar to that of two weeks earlier when he won the Kentucky Derby in the aftermath of seven horses dying in 10 days at Churchill Downs.
National Treasure, the 5-2 second choice, held off hard-charging Blazing Sevens down the stretch to win the 1 3/16-mile, $1.65 million race by a head in 1:55.12.
“He fought the whole way,” jockey John Velazquez said of National Treasure. “He put up a really good fight. … That’s what champions do.”
National Treasure paid $7.80 to win, $4 to place and $2.60 to show. Blazing Sevens paid $5 to place and $2.80 to show.
Mage finished third after going off as the 7-5 favorite, paying $2.40 to show. Despite the smallest Preakness field since 1986, horses at the lead went much slower than in the Derby, and that did not benefit Mage’s running style of closing late and passing tired rivals down the stretch.
“Slow, very slow,” Mage’s trainer, Gustavo Delgado Sr., said.
Mage’s defeat means there will not be a Triple Crown winner for a fifth consecutive year, since Baffert’s Justify in 2018.
Baffert became the face of the sport after his American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015. Since Medina Spirit was disqualified from the Derby, though, Baffert has turned into a polarizing figure. In addition to his Churchill Downs punishment, he was forced to miss the Preakness and Belmont last year because of a related suspension in Kentucky that Maryland and New York honored.
On Saturday, he was back at a major race — and, thanks to National Treasure, back in the winner’s circle.
“You can’t do it without the group of owners I have that have stuck by me through all of this negative, all this bad stuff, that’s happened to me in the last few years,” Baffert said. “Days like this, it’s not really vindication. It’s just, I feel like we have a moment where we can enjoy it.”
Even that wasn’t simple, given the somber scene earlier in the day, when Havnameltdown stumbled and unseated jockey Luis Saez.
While Saez was being attended to, black barriers were propped up on the dirt track while the horse was euthanized. All the while, 2Pac’s “California Love” blared from the infield speakers during what is intended as an annual daylong celebration of thoroughbred racing.
“It felt like a knife to my heart when I saw it,” Velazquez said. “It’s devastating when you see it. When a horse suffers something like this — and the jockey on top of it — you feel it.”
Saez went to the hospital but was conscious, and his agent said X-rays were negative.
While expressing concern for Saez, Baffert said he was still grieving about Havnameltdown.
“We’re still sad about that horse, and we will be for a while,” Baffert said.
While horse racing deaths in the United States are at their lowest level since they began being tracked in 2009, adding another at the track hosting a Triple Crown race will only intensify the internal and external scrutiny of the industry. Those inside it have said they accept the realities of on-track deaths of horses while also acknowledging more work needs to be done to prevent as many as possible.
In that vein, new national medication and doping rules are set to go into effect on Monday. The federally mandated Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, which already regulated racetrack safety and other measures, will oversee drug testing requirements for horses that should standardize the sport nationwide for the first time.