Mugatu takes Engler to Preakness

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Mugatu gallops at Pimlico Race Course Thursday.
Scott Serio//Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

You like underdogs? Need somebody to cheer for in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course? Say hello to Mugatu. He cost $14,000, took five starts to break his maiden, was excluded from the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and shipped in from Ohio’s Belterra Park.

Trainer Jeff Engler, whose career began in 2009 after 16 years in corporate America, threw his chestnut colt a flake of hay Thursday morning and – after dodging a bite attempt – explained what it means to be in Baltimore on the third Saturday in May.

“We’re here representing the small barns all across the country, in my mind anyway,” he said. “We usually have between 10 and 20 horses, it fluctuates. We don’t get million-dollar horses. We get 15, we did get a $50,000 2-year-old this year. Fifty’s a lot for us. With that being said, you just never know. Everybody gets up at 4 a.m. seven days a week and works their tails off and small barns work even harder. To be able to be here and represent the small barns means a lot to me.”

Last year, Engler gave bloodstock agent Dan Preiss the task of finding of 2-year-old in the $15,000 price range at OBS April. Preiss called about a chestnut son of Blofeld, who stands about 42 miles from Pimlico at Murmur Farm in Darlington. Bred in Kentucky by JSM Equine, which campaigned Blofeld on the track, the colt had breezed a furlong in 10 3/5 seconds. Head up and white forelegs reaching, he got faster with each long stride but didn’t exactly scream precocity.

“Watch this video,” Preiss told Engler.

“I watched it, Hip Number Whatever, that isn’t fast for that sale, but his gallop-out was amazing,” said Engler. “Top three percent of the sale. Dan sent me a picture. His conformation was just perfect. He looked good, he was big . . .”

Hip 1150 from the Wavertree consignment cost $14,000, joined Average Joe Racing Stable, placed in three summer starts at Ellis Park and broke through with a maiden win on Gulfstream Park’s Tapeta track in November. On Tapeta at Turfway Park this winter, he finished third twice going a mile in allowance company and ran well enough when fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial and eighth (beaten 2 1/2 lengths) in the Rushaway. Sent off at 181-1 in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on dirt at Keeneland, Mugatu closed to finish fifth behind Sierra Leone.

The stakes finishes gave Mugatu, named for Will Ferrell’s character in the movie Zoolander, 14 points toward the Kentucky Derby. That wasn’t enough to make the field of 20 at Churchill Downs May 4, but did put Mugatu in the mix. Five days out, Engler’s phone rang at 6 a.m.

“I saw a 502 number and thought, ‘Who’s call me from Louisville at 6 in the morning?’ ” he said. “It was Churchill and they said ‘You need to be here by 4 p.m., you just made the also-eligible.’ ”

Mugatu got on a van and spent the week like a Derby horse as people told Engler there would surely be a couple scratches and he’d get to run. They were half-right. Encino scratched. Epic Ride drew in from the 21st spot. Mugatu (22) stayed in the barn. Sierra Leone almost won the thing.

Engler was, of course, disappointed.

“I really wanted the mile-and-a-quarter for him because I think the longer the better, plus he was really peaking. The Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Derby. We’re a small stable and to be able to run in the Kentucky Derby – just to be on the AE list in the Derby was phenomenal – but to have a chance to get in . . . for three days I had so many people saying to me, ‘You’re going to get in, you’re going to get in.’ That made it maybe a little worse.”

Mugatu went back to Belterra, breezed 5 furlongs in :59.80 May 11 and got on a van for Pimlico. He breaks from the inside in a field of eight at 20-1 on the morning line, and probably higher in reality. Joe Bravo, aboard for the maiden breaker, takes the riding assignment. His foes are homebreds – Uncle Heavy, Mystik Dan – or six- and seven-figure sales horses. Engler knows all that. He expects a big effort anyway.

“A lot of people are just tossing him, but I think he can surprise some people,” said the trainer. “He just keeps getting better. He’s finally growing up. Joe Talamo rode him six or seven times and every time he would come back and say, ‘He’s still not giving us a hundred percent, he’s still not giving us a hundred percent. When he does, he’s a Grade 1 winner.’ After the Blue Grass you could tell a difference in him. He ran on a big stage, he ran well and he knew it. His training after that was that much better. His stride was better, his focus was better, his mind, everything was just better so I think he’s just going to keep getting better which is good for us.”

Engler worked on a Quarter Horse farm as a teenager, but pursued a career outside of racing and spent 16 years in medical sales. He did well enough to own some horses, and took a chance on training in 2009. His first runner, Bubble Lee, cost $500 and finished sixth in a $5,000 claimer at River Downs. Engler won four races that year, the richest a $4,000 claimer with a $4,600 purse, but ramped up to a career-high 28 wins in 2013. Last year, he won 16 and hit a career-high of $549,545 in purse earnings. The Preakness is worth $2 million.

Engler and Mugatu will be there.

“If we could have a good showing, and keep going and draw attention to the smaller barns out there, it would be great,” he said. “We know how to train horses too.”