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Pace Makes The Race: How The Preakness Fell Into National Treasure’s Lap
NYRA / Chelsea Durand

Pace Makes The Race: How The Preakness Fell Into National Treasure’s Lap

Many of the top finishers in this year’s Kentucky Derby opted to skip the Preakness in favor of resting their horses; ultimately, only Mage, the Derby winner, entered the race. The race was then hit with another notable defection when trainer Brad Cox scratched Grade III Lexington Stakes winner First Mission, who was the morning-line second choice behind Mage.

That event changed the entire shape of the race, and left it open for National Treasure to win.

How did this happen, and what does this mean for the upcoming Belmont Stakes? You can check how to bet on the 2023 Belmont Stakes for now, as the race will take place as usual, in Elmont, New York, on June 10th.

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Running Styles

Horses, like all living creatures, have distinct preferences. They have favorite people, favorite treats, and favorite ways to complete their tasks- including running in races.

Some horses prefer to dart straight to the lead and stay there as long as they can; these horses are often referred to as “speed horses” or “front-runners.” Other horses, known as “stalkers,” prefer to tuck themselves in just behind the leaders initially and burst past them at a later point in the race. Finally, there are “closers,” who lay further back in the initial stages of the race and come from far behind, overtaking tiring horses at the end.

A knowledge of common pace scenarios is one of the first things a successful handicapper learns to analyze, as it can directly affect how races play out.

When there are multiple front-runners in a race, the pace through the early parts of the race tends to be very fast. This means that horses out on the front end in a longer race are more likely to burn themselves out and tire before the race is finished. A prime example of this is the 2022 Kentucky Derby: Summer is Tomorrow, Crown Pride (JPN), and others set the fastest opening quarter mile in Kentucky Derby history, and most finished well out of contention. Deep closer Rich Strike was able to take advantage of this situation, blasting past exhausted horses to score an upset victory.

When there is only one source of early speed, however, that horse can then dictate the pace. A smart jockey will take advantage of this situation and set a slow to moderate early pace, ensuring that the horse has enough energy left to fight off challenges.

National Treasure 

National Treasure (by Quality Road out of Treasure, by Medaglia d’Oro) showed potential as a racehorse from the very beginning. He made his debut on September 3rd of his two-year-old year in a 6 ½ furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar Racetrack in Southern California, where he defeated a field of nine other horses, including eventual Grade I Santa Anita Derby winner Practical Move. Trainer Bob Baffert immediately pushed the colt into graded stakes competition, and he proved his mettle by finishing second (to stablemate Cave Rock) in the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes and third (to Cave Rock and eventual champion Forte) in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Initially, National Treasure’s three-year-old season appeared to be a disappointment. He ran third in the Grade III Sham Stakes prior to being shipped to trainer Tim Yakteen to attain Kentucky Derby eligibility. He was being readied for a start in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, but a foot bruise forced a scratch. Yakteen started him next in the Santa Anita Derby, but he encountered traffic and could only manage fourth. With no hope of earning enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, National Treasure returned to Bob Baffert and began Preakness preparations. 

National Treasure is not a strict “need-the-lead” front-runner. However, in each of his races, he has shown that he prefers to be close to the lead in a stalking position, and will take the lead if it is open to him. 

National Treasure, #1, ridden by jockey John Velazquez, wins the Preakness Stakeson Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland on May 20, 2023. Johnny Voodoo/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

The 2023 Preakness Stakes

Initially, the Preakness field consisted of eight horses, and three in particular were regarded as the main contenders. Kentucky Derby winner Mage was a confirmed closer, as were most of the other horses entered in the race. The other two top choices, however, were National Treasure and another stalker/front-runner type, Grade III Lexington Stakes winner First Mission. Most predicted that those two horses would set a considerable pace in the early stages of the Preakness.

When First Mission scratched, however, National Treasure was left as the only horse who would naturally go straight to the lead. Veteran jockey John Velasquez expertly took command of the race, slowing National Treasure to a snail-like opening quarter in 23.97 seconds and an equally slow half-mile in 48.92; in comparison, the Kentucky Derby yielded opening fractions of 22.35 and 45.73. National Treasure, having barely extended himself at first, had more than enough energy at the end to turn away runner-up Blazing Sevens, and Mage, faced with competitors who were not tired enough to fall back, settled for third.

The 2023 Belmont Stakes

Many of the horses who skipped the Preakness will be returning for the Belmont Stakes on June 10th.

Should National Treasure continue on to the Belmont Stakes, he is likely to come up against not only scratched would-be Kentucky Derby favorite Forte, but also Two Phil’s and Angel of Empire, who rounded out the Derby trifecta, and Pletcher’s other Derby contenders, Kingsbarns and Tapit Trice. First Mission has also not been ruled out of contention for the race. (Mage, according to his connections, will skip the Belmont Stakes and instead prepare for the Grade I Travers Stakes over the summer.)

Forte is a stalker, and Angel of Empire and Tapit Trice are confirmed closers. However, Two Phil’s has shown not only in his Kentucky Derby performance but also in his dirt prep races that he, like National Treasure, prefers to stay closer to the front. Two Phil’s has nine lifetime starts, of which he has won four- twice as many as either National Treasure or Mage. He could easily put pressure on National Treasure in the initial stages of the Belmont. Kingsbarns, who entered the Derby after a gate-to-wire win in the Grade II Louisiana Derby, could join in the fray.

If Two Phil’s, Kingsbarns, and National Treasure burn themselves out on the lead, who could pick up the pieces? One horse who has a lot of talent as well as the breeding to handle the Belmont’s grueling 1 ½ mile distance is Tapit Trice. The multiple graded stakes winner is a son of Tapit, whose offspring have won the Belmont Stakes a mind-boggling four times. 

Should the Belmont Stakes offer up a smaller field than the Derby and a hotter pace than the Preakness, it could turn out to be a perfect fit for Tapit Trice.

Author: Lindsay Griffin