Four takeaways from 2023 Preakness Stakes

May 21st, 2023

As National Treasure and Blazing Sevens fought out the finish of Saturday’s Preakness (G1), one thing was already certain: for the fourth straight year, the Preakness winner did not run in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Thus the “new shooter” angle continued in force, while Mage became the latest Derby winner to place in the middle jewel with his respectable third.

National Treasure’s connections represented the other obvious storylines. Hall of Famer John Velazquez scored a long-awaited first Preakness in his 13th try, completing his own Triple Crown set after three Derby trophies and two wins in the Belmont (G1). And on an emotional roller-coaster of a day for Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer set a new all-time Preakness record with his eighth victory in the middle jewel.

Now for takeaways about how the Preakness unfolded, and its implications for the three-year-old division:

1. Pace makes the race.

The Preakness pace dynamic promised to be radically different from the Derby. The lack of dedicated frontrunners was a big hint that it would pay to race handy. National Treasure, breaking from the rail and with the blinkers back on, was a logical chance to grab the early lead. But his possible pace rivals, Coffeewithchris and First Mission, could complicate the picture.

His task was eased by the withdrawal of First Mission, and once National Treasure got away in good order and beat Coffeewithchris to the front, his chances were boosted. Indeed, after a comfortable opening quarter in :23.95, Velazquez was able to nurse him along through slow fractions of :48.92 and 1:13.49. As a result, the others were adversely affected to varying degrees.

Blazing Sevens was tactical enough to advance into second and turn the Preakness into a match race for the final 3 1/2 furlongs. But National Treasure was good enough to complete the grand larceny. He quickened his final three-sixteenths in a sharp :18.05, and proved to have the heart to win a protracted battle with Blazing Sevens.

2. Mage finished well in the circumstances.

Mage, who raced in proximity to Blazing Sevens as an early stalker, did not pick up until the top two had gone. Given how fast they finished, Mage couldn’t realistically make a dent. He deserves credit for losing by 2 1/4 lengths when the rest dropped further behind him.

Might an earlier move, as in Mage’s runner-up effort in the Florida Derby (G1), have made a difference? But the whole pace was significantly faster at Gulfstream when he launched. This was the slowest tempo that Mage has encountered in his brief career, and the race flow worked against him. Red Route One was taken out of his deep-closing game by a middle move to get a bit nearer, then flattened out in fourth. An unhurried Perform could never get involved in sixth.

3. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile form to the fore.

The definition of new shooter is becoming more elastic. Both National Treasure and Blazing Sevens had plenty of experience at two, and they ended up swerving the Derby for different reasons. National Treasure had a foot bruise that ruled him out of the San Felipe (G2), and he couldn’t regain sharpness in time when fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Blazing Sevens was healthy, and with the requisite points, but trainer Chad Brown judged that he needed more time to crank up to a peak effort.

Interestingly, both had competed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), where National Treasure and Blazing Sevens were third and fourth, respectively, to champion Forte. Although Forte had to scratch on the morning of the Kentucky Derby, his form has loomed over the first two jewels of the Triple Crown.

Mage had finished second to Forte in the Florida Derby, providing a more recent tie-in to the Run for the Roses. You have to go back further in Forte’s past performances to find the eventual Preakness exacta, and in fairness, the middle jewel wouldn’t have set up well for him on paper either. Still, the point remains that the classic winners of 2023 so far had been beaten by the two-year-old champion, and the division leader until his setback.

4. The three-year-old title is wide open.

The Preakness result leaves the three-year-old division muddled. National Treasure’s victory has a whiff of opportunism, assisted by circumstances, especially considering that every Derby runner except Mage skipped the Preakness. Two Phil’s, Angel of Empire, Disarm, and Tapit Trice are all lying in wait.

Nor was National Treasure a standout even among the Baffert three-year-olds, with Arabian Knight shaping up as a potential superstar before being shelved. Stablemate Arabian Lion had been under consideration for the Preakness, until the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton S. was preferred as a confidence-booster on the undercard. When Arabian Lion cruised around Pimlico by four lengths in a stakes-record 1:41.13, Baffert was literally saying he should have run in the Preakness.

Spare a thought for First Mission, who beat Arabian Lion last out in the Lexington (G3). The Brad Cox trainee could have made it a three-way tussle in the Preakness. Let’s hope that he gets back in the game for the second half.

Three weeks from now, chances are yet another colt will rise to the challenge in the Belmont. Then we’re in for a fantastic summer and fall to determine the three-year-old title.