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In his Sunday morning comments after winning his record eighth Preakness Stakes (G1), Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was more somber than celebratory.
A few times, Baffert made a point of saying that the catastrophic injury sustained by Havnameltdown earlier in the program changed everything for him on a historic afternoon at Pimlico Race Course.
“To me, the memory of this race would be that I lost Havnameltdown,” he said. “It was nice to win the race, but to me it was a pretty sad day.”
After a two-year absence from the Triple Crown series, Baffert, 70, returned to the Preakness with National Treasure, a well-regarded colt who had won just one of his five starts. With blinkers on the first time this season, National Treasure broke sharply.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez promptly put him on the lead and from there was able to dictate a slow pace. When Blazing Sevens, trained by two-time Preakness winner Chad Brown, put in a determined challenge in the stretch, National Treasure responded and won by a head.
The win enabled Baffert to move ahead of 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden for the most victories in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. It was Baffert’s record-extending 17th win in the Triple Crown series.
Baffert said that National Treasure and Sir Barton Stakes winner Arabian Lion would stay at Pimlico for a few more days this week and may go on to New York for races on the Belmont Stakes program on June 10. Though he did not rule out Arabian Lion, he said National Treasure was a more likely candidate for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Baffert said he did not want to send the colts back to his base at California and then ship back to New York.
The Preakness was National Treasure’s third race of 2023 and Baffert said it was not demanding.
“They went so slow early, he had so much horse that he couldn’t pull him up at the end he told me,” Baffert said. “Arabian Lion, I’m not sure if he’s up for the mile and a half, but he did run a big race yesterday. It could change. I have until tomorrow to make these calls. I could change my mind and send them back home on Tuesday. So long as they are eating well, which they are, and they came out of it well, I think I’ll be keeping them here relaxed for a little bit and I don’t have to ship them.”
Baffert said that National Treasure has recovered from a quarter crack that might have impacted his training before the Santa Anita Derby. He said the slow-developing colt looks to have matured since that race.
“His last two works were pretty amazing. Really amazing,” he said. “You could tell that the lights were going on. Johnny could tell the difference in him immediately. He could tell that he was figuring it out. Because he’s lightly raced, he kept waiting for horses to come at him. He did that the right way because he had always been green and intimidated.”
National Treasure wore blinkers in two of his three starts as a 2-year-old and Baffert decided to put them back on for the Preakness.
“Every trip he’s had, he’s always been stopping and going,” Baffert said. “With the blinkers he just blew out of the gate and put himself in the race right away. He hadn’t broke that way since he broke his maiden. I think the blinkers really helped him and he came out running.”
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In the stretch, National Treasure showed the grit that had been missing in previous races.
“When that horse came to him, he gutted it out,” Baffert said.
Havnameltdown was euthanized after suffering the leg injury in the Chick Lang Stakes (G3). The colt had been a strong performer for Baffert and the Pimlico race was being used as a steppingstone to a Grade 1 race on the Belmont Stakes program. Baffert was subdued when he met with the media Sunday morning. Despite the record-breaking win on the big stage of the Preakness he said it did not feel anything like the first seven victories.
“I’m still upset about losing that horse yesterday,” he said. “My memory of this race is going to be about him. It just took all the fun out of it.”
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