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Mage’s Triple Crown bid ends after finishing third in Preakness

Staples are seen on the eyelid of Mage as he is groomed ahead of the Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

BALTIMORE (AP) — A half-mile into the Preakness, Mage’s Triple Crown chances were already in serious jeopardy.

The Kentucky Derby-winning colt was racing comfortably — and wasn’t that far behind — but the pace was a fairly easy one, and that made the leaders tough to catch.

“Not much speed in the race,” said Javier Castellano, Mage’s jockey. “The way it unfolded, the race, it disadvantaged the horses coming from behind.”

That scenario wasn’t hard to see coming. After First Mission was scratched, there were only seven horses remaining, and there wasn’t much early speed in this middle jewel of the Triple Crown. So front-runner National Treasure had plenty left for the stretch as Mage tried in vain to make up ground. National Treasure edged Blazing Sevens by a head, with Mage another 2 1/4 lengths back in third.

Mage was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since Justify in 2018. And Although he went off as a 7-5 favorite, there was always the possibility that the pace could set up very well for National Treasure.

Sure enough, National Treasure led after a quarter-mile that took 23.95 seconds. A half-mile went by in 48.92 and three quarters of a mile in 1:13.49. By contrast, at last year’s Preakness those fractions were 24.32, 47.44 and 1:11.50.

Although the pace made Mage’s job harder, he didn’t have too rough a time of it — aside from needing a few stitches for a cut above his right eye after bumping his head in his stall earlier in the week.

Castellano said he broke well out of the gate.

“I liked my trip, I had a beautiful trip. I liked to be where I was,” Castellano said. “I don’t want to be too far, because I knew it’s not going to be a lot of speed in the race.”

Mage made a move on the outside on the second turn and was within striking distance of National Treasure and Blazing Sevens, but they weren’t about to yield. Before long, it was a two-horse race to the finish.

“They always fight,” said Gustavo Delgado Jr., who assists his father in training Mage. “They fight when they go fast. Imagine when they go so slow.”

Although American Pharoah snapped horse racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015 and Justify repeated the feat three years later, those were the only horses in that span that even had a chance to complete that sweep entering the Belmont.

American Pharoah was the 10th horse in 19 years to win both the Derby and Preakness. In the eight years since, only Justify pulled that off.

“My horse, it responded, responded very well, but couldn’t catch up to those two horses,” Castellano said. “They opened up, and the race, it was over.”

Co-owner and blood stock agent Ramiro Restrepo said the Kentucky Derby winner bumped his head Thursday, causing a superficial cut and receiving treatment from state veterinarians. Restrepo confirmed in a text message to The Associated Press on Saturday that Mage resumed training without any interruption.

Vets examined and cleared Mage to run in the $1.65 million race. Increased prerace screening is in place in Maryland, including inspection of each horse in the biggest stakes races by Stronach Group chief veterinary officer Dr. Dionne Benson.