Six storylines for 2023 Preakness Stakes

May 19th, 2023

The annual ritual of analyzing Kentucky Derby (G1) alumni versus new shooters in the Preakness (G1) has taken on a disproportionate twist in Saturday’s 148th running at Pimlico. Derby winner Mage is the only one advancing from the first Saturday in May to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

That kicks off our storylines for the 2023 Preakness. There would have been seven with First Mission going for Godolphin, but with his scratch, we're down to six angles to watch:

1. New trend versus weight of history

With sheer weight of numbers, the six fresh challengers stand a great chance of extending the recent trends. The past three Preakness winners in a row, and four of the last six, did not contest the Kentucky Derby. Given contemporary preferences to have much more than a two-week spacing between races, the trend in favor of Triple Crown newcomers is likely to here to stay.

Yet at the same time, it’s worth pointing out that recent years have had some anomalous editions of the Kentucky Derby, between disqualifications (2019 and 2021), a pandemic delay to September (2020), and a big longshot winner (2022). Only one official Derby winner ran in those Preaknesses, Authentic, who was just denied by the filly Swiss Skydiver (off a four-week gap in October 2020).

Although Mage bucked the historical stats to win the Derby, now the preponderance of history is on his side, so to speak, as a Derby alumnus in the Preakness. Derby winners have turned the classic double 36 times, and another 48 who lost the Derby won the Preakness.

2. Will Mage set the stage for a Triple Crown bid?

On the other hand, Mage’s lightly-raced profile is more reminiscent of the typical new shooter. Indeed, inexperience had been his potential liability at Churchill Downs, where he showed just how far he’d advanced on the learning curve.

Unlike the typical Derby competitors who were grinding on the trail, Mage remains relatively fresh, having just debuted Jan. 28. As a result, the Gustavo Delgado trainee sports an unusual combination. He offers both the best form – from nearly upsetting champion Forte in the Florida Derby (G1) to winning the Kentucky Derby – as well as upside.

Slow starts can put him further back early, but Mage recovered with a slingshot move at Gulfstream Park and the Kentucky Derby pace war played into his hands. He doesn’t figure to get that set-up at Pimlico, but he’s not by definition a one-run closer either. Mage had speed on debut, so a sensible break would ensure a better early position.

If Mage can follow up in the Preakness, we’ll have a three-week discussion about whether he can be the next Justify, as an unraced juvenile to sweep the Triple Crown. It would be ironic if a main rival of Justify, Good Magic, sires his successor.

3. National Treasure aims to be Baffert’s record-breaker

Bob Baffert owns the record for most wins in the three Triple Crown races, with 16, but he’s tied with 19th-century horseman R. Wyndham Walden for the all-time mark in the Preakness. If National Treasure can hand Baffert his eighth victory in the middle jewel, the Hall of Famer would become the top trainer in Preakness history.

But National Treasure doesn’t have the profile of Baffert’s seven Preakness winners, who were all coming off the Derby. Nor is that because of Baffert’s suspension by Churchill Downs Inc. National Treasure was on course to compete in the Derby, as his switch to trainer Tim Yakteen earlier in the year indicated. A bruised foot interrupted his spring campaign, however, and his fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) wasn’t enough to make it to Louisville.

Reunited with Baffert thereafter, National Treasure is eligible to move forward, and the blinkers go back on a colt whose mentality hasn’t matched his raw ability. He’d proven his class when placing in three previous graded attempts, including a third to Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

National Treasure can give another Hall of Famer a lift too – jockey John Velazquez, still in search of his first Preakness win. Velazquez has finished second three times, most memorably aboard Baffert’s near-misser Authentic.

4. 150,000 reasons to respect Perform

Speaking of Hall of Famers yet to win the Preakness, Shug McGaughey likewise came agonizingly close when Easy Goer was just outfoxed by fellow great Sunday Silence in 1989. McGaughey did not return until he led over 2013 Derby winner Orb, who wound up fourth.

Now the conservative trainer, the last person to get carried away by Triple Crown ambition, is back with the surprise package Perform. As if that weren’t a tip in itself, McGaughey was on board with the owners paying $150,000 to supplement the colt who hadn’t done enough for them to nominate him to the Triple Crown.

Perhaps that’s not quite fair to Perform, since he was running over inadequate trips. His last try in a sprint maiden, ironically enough, was his fourth to debuting Mage. Perform was transformed from frustrating type into blossoming star, though, once he stretched out to two turns.

His electric rally through traffic in the Federico Tesio booked his ticket for the Preakness, arguably stamping him the best of the three who won the automatic qualifiers. Red Route One turned the corner in the Bath House Row S. at Oaklawn Park, but the Steve Asmussen trainee appears more hostage to the pace scenario. Chase the Chaos earned his berth via the El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate Fields Tapeta, but his subsequent efforts rightly leave him as a 50-1 shot on the morning line.

If Perform can break through for McGaughey, he’d join Deputed Testamony (1983) as a Tesio winner to take the Preakness.

5. Blazing Sevens a variation on Brown theme

Perform is part of a Preakness trio for hot young sire Good Magic, a storyline of its own as explored in this week’s pedigree notebook. While Mage and Perform have exploded onto the scene only recently, Blazing Sevens was the sire’s first Grade 1 winner in last fall’s Champagne (G1).

For that very reason, Blazing Sevens doesn’t fit the overall pattern of Chad Brown’s two Preakness winners. The one commonality with Cloud Computing (2017) and Early Voting (2022) is that they all deliberately skipped the Derby, for which they qualified, in the belief that the Preakness was a more winnable spot. Brown was correct in the case of those two less streetwise customers, but Blazing Sevens has been around the block. That makes the parallel more superficial than real.

Yet Blazing Sevens was a better-than-appears fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and his last-out third in the Blue Grass (G1) suggested that he was back in business, with blinkers. Brown has sounded upbeat about the colt’s training as well.

6. Coffeewithchris the Maryland hope

One of the most charming elements of the Preakness is the local hope who often appears up against it, but deserves his chance at the biggest race in his neighborhood. Playing that role in the 2023 production is Coffeewithchris, twice a stakes winner at Laurel and exiting a fifth in the Tesio.

His sentimental appeal is enhanced by the fact he’s co-owned by trainer John Salzman Jr., who has openly admitted that the $30,000 to enter is a reach for stables like his. Still, the opportunity to send out a Maryland-bred on the grand stage – maybe the only one he’ll have – made it worth the go. The meaning of this moment hit home when Salzman's emotions bubbled up at the traditional Alibi Breakfast, as recounted by John Scheinman in Blood-Horse.

Coffeewithchris has the Curlin factor too. By the blue-collar Ride on Curlin, runner-up in the 2014 Preakness, Coffeewithchris is out of a mare by well-bred Maryland stalwart Outflanker, the broodmare sire of 2021 Horse of the Year Knicks Go.