National Treasure wins the Preakness for embattled trainer Bob Baffert

BALTIMORE — Bob Baffert, Pimlico Race Course and the entire sport of horse racing had a little more than five hours Saturday to travel between the poles of tragedy and triumph. Between Havnameltdown’s on-track euthanizing in the afternoon haze and National Treasure’s dazzling victory in the Preakness under the long shadows of evening, the music kept blaring from the infield festival stage, six other races went off without a hitch and Baffert’s name trended on Twitter — and not for any good reasons.

The quick version of history from Saturday’s second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown will first note National Treasure’s gutsy victory over runner-up Blazing Sevens and five other rivals in the smallest Preakness field in 37 years. The victory ruined the Triple Crown hopes of Kentucky Derby winner Mage, who finished third, and gave Baffert, the embattled Hall of Fame trainer, his record-breaking eighth Preakness title.

“It’s been a very emotional day,” Baffert said, choking back tears during NBC’s post-race interview.

But sometime long from now, if horse racing has been changed permanently for the better or deemed too corrupt and cruel to be allowed to continue, it could be Saturday’s sixth race, rather than the more hyped 13th, that carries the weight of history. That is when Havnameltdown, trained and saddled Saturday by Baffert, broke down, threw his jockey and was euthanized on the track behind a dark-colored screen while, perhaps 100 yards away, a DJ had the infield crowd dancing to 2Pac’s “California Love.”

Photos from the 148th Preakness Stakes

It was a horrific scene that melded two of the most unsavory and painful storylines in the sport — a spate of equine deaths at high-profile tracks and Baffert’s history of doping violations and suspensions — and shoved the entire, smoldering mess into the face of the public on one of the most-watched days on the racing calendar.

While horse racing deaths are at their lowest rate since data was first tracked in 2009, scrutiny of the industry is at an all-time high, particularly after seven horses died in the run-up to the Derby. While none of them were Baffert horses, he has been tied to an alarming number of deaths; according to a 2021 Washington Post analysis, at least 74 horses died under Baffert’s care in California between 2000 and 2021, more than all but two of hundreds of trainers operating in the state.

Baffert, 70, had been absent from the Triple Crown chase for two years — largely the result of a suspension stemming from his stewardship of Medina Spirit, who won the 2021 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified for a positive drug test, a result Baffert appealed but failed to overturn. Medina Spirit died later that year of an apparent heart attack, and Baffert was barred from the 2022 Triple Crown races plus this year’s Derby.

“He’s been through a lot. He’s been treated really unfairly,” said Sol Kumin, one of National Treasure’s owners, when asked why he kept the horse under Baffert’s care. “He’s our guy and will continue to be so.”

Though he kept a lower profile than usual, showing up at Pimlico the day before the race, Baffert nonetheless sucked much of the oxygen out of the prerace atmosphere. It helped that he had a quality horse who went off Saturday as the 5-2 second choice.

But Saturday’s proceedings didn’t even make it all the way to the Preakness itself before Baffert was back in the national consciousness for all the wrong reasons — forced to answer for a tragedy that again scarred the sport. It left another beautiful animal dead and a jockey, Luis Saez, at a nearby hospital with a leg injury. After X-rays came back negative, Saez was released later in the day, and his agent told reporters that he hopes to ride at Pimlico on Sunday.

“We never had an issue with him,” Baffert said of Havnameltdown. “We are so careful with all these horses, and it still happens. It is something that is very disheartening. … We do grieve when these things happen. There’s nothing worse than coming back [to the stables] and the stall is empty. He is a nice horse. He could not have been doing any better. It’s sickening. I am in shock.”

The criticism from animal rights groups and other watchdog organizations was searing and, in some cases, aimed directly at Baffert.

“Pimlico should have followed Churchill Downs’ example and barred Bob Baffert from the track,” Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement. “The tragic death of Havnameltdown is the latest in a long list of fatalities. The racing industry must kick out the bad guys or it will have blood on its hands as well as blood on its tracks.”

Into this wounded sport Saturday evening galloped National Treasure, his mission to get to the finish line first unaffected by the carnage of the sixth race. He broke well from the starting gate, led almost the entire way and held off a monstrous closing charge from Blazing Sevens to win in 1 minute 55.12 seconds. In that endeavor, he was guided expertly by jockey John Velazquez, previously 0 for 12 in the Preakness, who navigated a tepid pace, made sure to stay ahead of Mage and then coaxed a max-effort stretch run from National Treasure.

“He did not want to let that horse pass him,” Velazquez said of National Treasure’s duel with Blazing Sevens. “That’s what champions do.”

Afterward, when NBC’s camera caught up with him near the finish line, Baffert’s words came in fits and starts: “This business is all twists and turns, the ups and downs. … The emotions of this game … to win this … losing that horse today really hurt.”

But after greeting National Treasure on the dirt track, beaming through the winner’s circle ceremony and dishing out a hundred or more hugs, Baffert had composed himself.

“It’s the love of the horse that just keeps me focused and keeps me going,” he said. “I just kept the noise out. … It was tough. We’ve had some tough moments. But it’s days like this — it’s not really vindication. It’s just — I feel like we have a moment we can enjoy.”

Baffert’s day, his night and his entire racing season would have looked very different — darker, for sure — had National Treasure been caught and passed down the stretch in the 13th race Saturday.

“This horse brought us all out of a horrible moment today,” he said. “And I’m just grateful for that horse.”

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