Nobody takes being a jockey more seriously than John Velazquez. He’s 34 years into a Hall of Fame career, a winner of 6,507 races, a leader in every jockeys’ room he hangs his saddles. So when he says watching another jockey fall is ”a knife to your heart” you believe him.
When Havnameltdown was fatally injured in the Chick Lang Stakes and jockey Luis Saez went to Sinai Hospital after the hard fall at Pimlico Race Course Saturday, Velazquez felt it along with the crowd in Baltimore and all of Thoroughbred racing. The difference was Velazquez had to ride National Treasure for Havnameltdown’s trainer Bob Baffert seven races later in the Preakness Stakes.
“Seeing it happen, you’re like, ‘Why? Why?,’ ” Velazquez said. “Any day is a bad day but to see it happen like that on this day, it’s scary. I heard that he’s doing good and he might ride tomorrow. Hopefully that is the case. It puts a damper to the whole day, no matter what. The horse gets put down, a fellow rider goes to the hospital. We don’t know until later on that he’s OK. We have to ride.”
Velazquez rode a Preakness masterpiece. From the inside post in a field of seven, he let National Treasure roll to the front, drifted a few paths wide going into the first turn just to make it difficult on any challengers, slowed the pace enough to stay relaxed and then withstood a long challenge from Blazing Sevens through the stretch to win by a head in 1:55.12 for 1 3/16 miles. Kentucky Derby winner Mage finished third. It was Velazquez’s first Preakness win, in his 13th attempt, and Baffert’s record eighth.
For the jockey, the win – in front of his wife Leona, son Michael, daughter Lerina and father-in-law Leo O’Brien – felt like a relief. The jockey won the Derby four times, the Belmont Stakes twice. His Preakness past included seconds with Authentic, Itsmyluckyday and Animal Kingdom.
“It is special, it’s ——- special, Leo is here, Leona is here, the kids are here, it’s special,” he said. “You work all your life and people put winning these races into your head and having the opportunity to be here. And not only the opportunity to be in it, the opportunity to win it. It took me 13 tries to ——- in win it.”
For Baffert, the record-breaker came with plenty to unpack. National Treasure was his first starter in a Triple Crown race since 2021 when Medina Spirit finished third in the Preakness after winning the Derby and getting disqualified for failing a post-race drug test. In the time since, the Hall of Fame trainer served a suspension from the Kentucky Racing Commission, was banned from starting horses at Derby host Churchill Downs for two years and saw attempts to appeal the Derby decision fail. Medina Spirit died after a training session in December 2021, a month after finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Barred from earning points for a berth in this year’s Derby because of the Churchill ban, several Baffert 3-year-olds were moved to former assistant Tim Yakteen. National Treasure, a debut winner for Baffert last September at Del Mar who lost his next three starts, finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby April 8 to eliminate a Derby start from his schedule.
Instead, the Quality Road colt bred in Kentucky by Peter Blum Thoroughbreds returned to Baffert and aimed for the Preakness for an ownership group of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stable, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stable, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan.
“Tim thought he would be a little short,” Baffert said of the Santa Anita Derby. “He probably needed the Santa Anita Derby. Because when I got him from Tim, he was in great condition. … We always thought, we were hoping for something like this.”
Baffert watched the Preakness from a stall in Pimlico’s indoor paddock near where he took in Havnameltdown’s race in the Chick Lang. The odds-on favorite was competing for the lead in the 6-furlong sprint when he went off stride, stumbled and sent Saez to the track in a hard fall. The 3-year-old colt suffered a non-operable left fore fetlock injury and was euthanized on the track after veterinary examination.
Back in the paddock for the Preakness, Baffert called out the early splits to his assembled group that included wife Jill and his youngest son Bode, relishing the tepid pace Velazquez set aboard National Treasure.
“Forty-nine,” Baffert said as Velazquez kept a tight hold on National Treasure heading into the backstretch, an easy 1 1/2 lengths clear of Maryland-bred longshot Coffeewithchris after the actual half-mile split in :48.92.
“I came out running, I got past the wire here and made sure I put them to the outside a little bit so if they wanted to go they had to go faster to get in front of me and then I would be in a nice position watching what they do,” said Velazquez. “It worked out that way. When he didn’t go, I dropped into the rail into the first turn and we sat there. It was the perfect kind of scenario you ask for your horse.”
Mage and Javier Castellano tracked just behind the first two while down inside, much closer to the pace than he raced in Louisville, with Blazing Sevens and Irad Ortiz Jr. to their outside.
National Treasure continued on through 6 furlongs in 1:13.49 before Ortiz had seen enough and engaged the leader on the far turn. Blazing Sevens drew even with National Treasure in the lane, with Mage not threatening from third and Perform, Coffeewithchris and Red Route One backpedaling after trying to work into the race on the backstretch.
National Treasure surrendered the lead briefly in the lane before Velazquez straightened the bay colt inside the sixteenth pole to repel Blazing Sevens and win by a head. The jockey deflected credit.
“It takes a horse first, it takes a horse first and the horse allows you to do what you want him to do,” Velazquez said. “For him to allow me to do what I wanted to do and give me everything that he can, that’s the best you can ask for. The horse put up all the fight you can ask.”
Mage finished 2 ¼ lengths back in third, denying fans the chance to pull for a Triple Crown attempt in three weeks at Belmont Stakes, with Red Route One fourth. Chase The Chaos, Perform and Coffeewithchris completed the field, reduced to seven after Friday’s scratch of Lexington Stakes winner First Mission.
Baffert, tears welling behind his trademark blue sunglasses, let out a few relieved screams of “yes, yes, yes,” as National Treasure hit the finish, spun toward the winner’s circle looking for his equally teary-eyed wife. The trainer gave plenty of credit to her in the post-race press conference, saying he “couldn’t have done it without” her support, along with that of his family and friends.
He heaped even more praise on Velazquez, who he’s teamed with the last few winters during the Santa Anita Park meet for major stakes wins. Baffert also downplayed the narrative of the win being a save-the-day moment following Havnameltdown’s breakdown or the myriad of issues that have plagued him since Medina Spirit was disqualified.
“So, to me, this means more for Johnny getting his Preakness win,” said Baffert.
He left the grandstand and paddock area immediately after Havnameltdown’s injury, as the minutes and hours ticked down to the Preakness amid the steady beat of the infield music festival on a 14-race card.
“Then I was just hoping that this horse could win for the group and for Johnny,” Baffert said. “When he hit the wire, I think my emotions were – and my wife – what we’ve been through, for the day been through, it would have been so nice without that happening.
“But we grieve. I’m still grieving about it. We’re still sad about that horse, and we will be for a while. It just put a little moment of spark into our lives.”
Baffert always hoped for the spark from National Treasure, purchased by Donato Lanni, agent for SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables for $500,000 at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings. The debut winner finished second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity – behind ballyhooed stablemate Cave Rock – before a third to eventual champion Forte and Cave Rock in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
For racing, the result added another layer to a roiling time with the federal Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority only partially in effect and facing court challenges, a breakdown on a major stage (two weeks after two horses died on the Derby undercard) and a classic win by a trainer considered an icon to some, a lightning rod to many, and worse to others including Preakness Day statements from the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
As ominous as those and other pieces of the Preakness equation were, they did little to dent National Treasure’s performance.
“From the three-sixteenths pole home, he put in a really good fight,” Velazquez said. “He did not want to let that horse pass. And that’s what champions do. He got it done for me.”