Horse safety in spotlight as Derby-winner Mage goes for Preakness

·3-min read
Kentucky Derby winner Mage peers out from his stall at Pimlico Race Course ahead of the 148th running of the Preakness Stakes
Kentucky Derby winner Mage peers out from his stall at Pimlico Race Course ahead of the 148th running of the Preakness Stakes

The horse deaths at Churchill Downs that cast a pall over the Kentucky Derby continue to raise concerns as Mage vies for the second leg of US racing's coveted Triple Crown in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.

Mage, trained by Gustavo Delgado and ridden by jockey Javier Castellano -- both from Venezuela -- out-dueled Two Phil's down the stretch to become the fourth horse to win the Kentucky Derby off just three prior career starts.

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The usual excited speculation about whether Mage can follow up in the 1 3-16-mile Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore has been more muted as US racing again wrestles with issues of equine safety.

Seven horses died in the space of 10 days at Churchill Downs, including two on Kentucky Derby day on May 6, and another colt was euthanized after suffering a leg injury on Sunday to bring the total number of horse deaths at the iconic Kentucky track to eight in a matter of weeks.

Kentucky racing officials suspended trainer Saffie Joseph, who had two horses collapse and die for unknown reasons, and they also scratched Derby favorite Forte hours before the race because of concerns over a hoof bruise.

Forte, trained by Todd Pletcher, won't race the Preakness either because the scratch meant the colt was placed on the veterinary list, and barred from racing, for two weeks.

The state of Maryland has had it's own crisis, with five horses suffering fatal accidents in racing or training at Laurel Park, prompting a temporary shut down as track officials and horsemen debated the conditions.

"You look at (the deaths) in the context of number of races and starts, and it's the smallest it's been in decades because our protocols are better," Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, told the Baltimore Sun.

"But then you have a cluster like we had with the entire world looking at Churchill Downs, and it's hard to explain, it's hard to justify."

Nevertheless, the presence of the Kentucky Derby winner in the Preakness always raises the tantalizing question of whether this could be a Triple Crown year.

Thirty-six horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but only 13 have gone on to win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes to complete the treble.

The most recent was Justify in 2018. Last year's stunning longshot Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike skipped the Preakness.

Mage will be up against a bevy of fresh challengers as the only Kentucky Derby runner in the field of eight.

- Waiting to see -

It's the first Preakness with just one Derby runner since 1969, when Majestic Prince won both races.

"Everyone has their own agendas for the rest of the year and the schedule, what races they want to run in," Mage owner Ramiro Restrepo said. "The horse is doing great, which is the most important thing. That gave us the green light to run, and whoever they line up in there is who we've got to race."

Mage drew the third post and was installed as the early 8-5 favorite. The colt's connections say that while he has been lightly raced, he is improving with every outing.

"We're just waiting to see how much he has in the well of talent," Restrepo said.

First Mission, trained by Brad Cox, drew the outside post and was made the early second-favorite at 5-2.

The field also includes National Treasure, who missed the Derby because trainer Bob Baffert is serving a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs in the wake of a positive drug test for Medina Spirit in 2021.

National Treasure drew the inside post and was priced at 4-1.