Tom Ryan gathered the troops outside Bridie Harrison’s consignment on the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales grounds, ready to tackle short lists and plot a game plan for final looks at potential buys out of the sale of selected yearlings.
The “Avengers,” as they’re dubbed for reasons not clear beyond the fact they joined together to purchase top-dollar racing prospects in recent years, met with even more purpose on this morning with Bob Baffert in town. The silver-haired Hall of Fame trainer was in upstate New York from Southern California to go over potential buys with Ryan, Donato Lanni and other representatives of some of American racing’s most successful operations.
The group, which included agent John Moynihan representing Stonestreet Stables, found a colt they liked in Harrison’s consignment in Hip 13. The son of Quality Road out of a winless mare by Medaglia d’Oro “was a horse that met all the criteria immediately,” Ryan said.
“Donato loved the horse,” Ryan said, “John Moynihan loved the horse.”
Harrison, selling the colt already named National Treasure for longtime client and breeder Peter Blum, also “figured he was their type of horse.”
“And really we were hoping he would suit them as much as we thought he would,” said Harrison, whose association with Blum goes back four decades and also includes selling Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby-G1 and Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 winner Authentic for the successful commercial breeder.
After bringing Baffert to see the colt, Ryan and Lanni weren’t so sure they’d end up being in the hunt for what they thought might be one of the jewels of the sale.
“We brought Bob to see the horse and he literally took one glance and walked away,” Ryan said almost a year later. “He doesn’t like him.”
Harrison confirmed the tale, refuting any notion of revisionist history or a fish story of the equine kind.
“He walked off, that’s exactly what he did,” said Harrison, who took Baffert’s move as a positive. “I guess he knew he wanted the horse . . . that’s when we knew they were on the horse. [Baffert] doesn’t have a lot of time and doesn’t go over a lot of the horses. They’ll have a group of horses for him to look at, come up with a list and then take him to go see them.
“That’s the thing about Saratoga; every single person that is there is going to wind up looking at every single horse on the grounds. Either the buyers themselves or their agents. They’re all going to come look . . . But with [National Treasure], he liked him. And they have bought other horses from us and done quite well, so we felt good.”
There were other prospects they liked among the almost 200 yearlings in the tight-quartered barns under the Elm and Maple trees on the historic sales grounds. So the group moved on, on the hunt to find some more. Baffert didn’t play his hand in front of Harrison and her team, but didn’t hold back to Ryan, Lanni and Moynihan.
“I love him,” he said.
The group showed that love an hour into the opening session and bought National Treasure for $500,000, the first of five purchases for $2,045,000 secured by Lanni as agent for SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables over the two-day sale. National Treasure wound up the second most expensive of the five, behind eventual stakes-placed maiden winner Massimo at $575,000, but ascended to the top of that group and the class of American 3-year-olds with a determined victory in the 148th running of the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes-G1 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore May 20.
Receiving a textbook Hall of Fame ride from John Velazquez, National Treasure seized the lead from the start, dictated the terms almost the entire 13⁄16 miles around Pimlico’s main track and fended off a stiff challenge from Grade 1 winner Blazing Sevens in deep stretch. National Treasure won by a head as the 5-2 second choice in the field of seven, with Kentucky Derby-G1 winner and 7-5 favorite Mage another non-threatening 21⁄4 lengths back. National Treasure won in 1:55.12 for his first Grade 1 victory and second tally overall from six starts for SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert “Bat” Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital and Catherine Donovan.
Velazquez completed a personal Triple Crown with his first Preakness victory, adding racing’s second jewel to other classic wins aboard Animal Kingdom, Always Dreaming and Authentic in the Kentucky Derby and on Rags to Riches and Union Rags in the Belmont Stakes-G1. He also rode Medina Spirit to victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified when the colt (who died after training that December) failed a post-race drug test. In response to that, and another positive with Gamine after the 2020 Kentucky Oaks-G1, Churchill Downs banned Baffert from participating at its tracks through the 2023 Derby. Baffert tried legal challenges, served a 90-day suspension from the Kentucky Racing Commission and did not participate in a Triple Crown race in 2022.
Baffert became the all-time leading Preakness trainer with his eighth victory. Five of his other Preakness wins came with Kentucky Derby winners – including eventual Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify.
“You can’t do it without the group of owners that I have that have stuck by me through all this . . . bad stuff that’s happened to me in the last few years,” Baffert said. “They’re loyal. They stuck with me, and I give them all the credit. They give me the ammo.”
National Treasure’s victory came hours after Baffert and his team weathered racing’s highs and lows, with the drama unfolding in real time – for the trainer and racing.
Two horses died on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, part of a spate of fatalities at the Kentucky track this spring that would ultimately halt racing early and move remaining dates to Ellis Park. Derby hopeful Wild On Ice was among the deaths at Churchill, and the track endured five scratches in its signature event (including morning-line favorite Forte, scratched by regulatory veterinarians for a bruised hoof) after entries were taken. For a while, the list of troubles seemed to grow by the day with the pending implementation of the national Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority rules hanging over it all.
The tumbler had still more for Baffert, and the sport.
Baffert’s Preakness Weekend started with Faiza’s first defeat as the odds-on favorite in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes-G2 May 19. The stable rebounded when the highly regarded Arabian Lion – campaigned by Medina Spirit’s owner, Amr Zedan’s Zedan Racing Stable – won the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard.
Two races after the Sir Barton, Baffert looked poised to add another Pimlico victory with Havnameltdown in the Chick Lang Stakes-G3 going 6 furlongs. Sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the field of seven in his first start in almost three months after a trip to Saudi Arabia, Havnameltdown broke a step slow under Luis Saez and quickly recovered to engage Ryvit up the backstretch. The son of Uncaptured rolled up to Ryvit around the turn but suffered a fractured left front fetlock injury and unseated Saez.
Owned by longtime Baffert clients Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, Havnameltdown was euthanized on the track.
Baffert, with his wife Jill, Lanni and others, watched the Chick Lang on a television from Pimlico’s indoor paddock. The trainer left the area immediately after Havnameltdown’s injury, and waited in the stakes barn as the day ticked down to the Preakness amid the steady beat of the infield music festival.
Some 5½ hours later, Baffert and his team took in the Preakness from a similar spot in the paddock. He called out the early splits to his assembled group as National Treasure took the lead from his inside post. Velazquez stayed well off the fence past the finish post the first time and into the first turn, getting away with an opening quarter-mile in :23.95 and a length in front of Maryland-bred and -based longshot Coffeewithchris. Blazing Sevens and Irad Ortiz Jr. raced in third around the far turn with Javier Castellano content to keep Mage behind the top three while more toward the rail.
“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 Coffeewithchris after the actual split in a moderate :48.92.
National Treasure hadn’t led early in any of his last four starts – all two-turn graded stakes – and Velazquez said it wasn’t necessarily “a plan” to be in front but if anyone else wanted the lead they were going to have to work for it.
“I [wanted] to get him a really good rhythm, and I knew it wasn’t a lot of speed, but I saw Irad warming up his horse, and I knew he was going to put pressure to the other horse with a little bit of speed,” Velazquez said. “That’s why when I broke . . . I went toward the middle of the track to make sure I put him over there and if they want to go any faster, let them go in front. Just a little strategy. If it works, it works.”
National Treasure continued through 6 furlongs in 1:13.49 before Ortiz had seen enough and engaged the leader aboard Blazing Sevens on the far turn. He drew even with National Treasure in the lane, with Mage not threatening from third and Coffeewithchris and Red Route One backpedaling after trying to make the race on the backstretch.
National Treasure surrendered the lead briefly before Velazquez straightened the bay colt inside the sixteenth pole to repel Blazing Sevens and win by a head. Mage’s third made it five consecutive years without a Triple Crown on the line in the Belmont Stakes June 10. Red Route One finished fourth with Chase the Chaos, Perform and Coffeewithchris completing the field, reduced to seven after the scratch of Stonestreet Lexington Stakes-G3 winner First Mission.
Baffert, tears in his eyes behind his trademark blue sunglasses, let out a few relieved screams of “yes, yes, yes,” as National Treasure hit the finish and spun toward the winner’s circle looking for his equally teary-eyed wife Jill. He praised her in the post-race press conference, saying he “couldn’t have done it without” her support, and heaped plenty on Velazquez.
Baffert and Velazquez have teamed the last few winters during the Santa Anita Park meeting for major stakes victories, and they were together for Authentic’s scores in the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2020. The trainer downplayed the complicated narrative of the win being a save-the-day moment following Havnameltdown’s breakdown or the issues that have plagued him and racing since Medina Spirit.
“To me, this means more for Johnny getting his Preakness win,” said Baffert. “. . . I was just hoping that this horse could win for the group and for Johnny. 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.”
National Treasure provided a spark to Harrison and her team that includes her husband Tommy and sons Jonathan and Daniel at Hurricane Place Farm just outside Cynthiana, Ky., and about a 45-minute drive to the center of Lexington.
A sixth-generation homebred, National Treasure traces back to Blum’s foundation mare Mono, a daughter of Better Self from the King Ranch breeding program purchased at Keeneland January in 1975. National Treasure is the fourth foal out of the Medaglia d’Oro mare Treasure, who is out of the Blum-bred stakes-placed winner and $115,021-earner Proposal. That Mt. Livermore mare is out of the Storm Bird mare Lady of Choice, who was produced by the Secretariat mare Chosen Lady who sold as an 11-year-old in foal to Danzig for $1.85 million at the 1998 Keeneland November sale.
Chosen Lady produced Grade 1 winner Well Chosen, Grade 3 winner In Contention and other winners for Blum before she sold. She’s out of the winning Florida-bred mare Mine Only, a daughter of Mr. Prospector and Mono, who won for Blum and the late Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens in the mid-1980s.
Harrison’s familiarity with each of those generations runs deep and she knew National Treasure was a star from the start.
“We foaled him and raised him the whole time,” Harrison said. “He was always the best horse on the farm. And Tom Ryan knew that, too, that he was the best horse on the farm that year. Even before we went to Saratoga, we knew he was the best.”
National Treasure wound up in Harrison’s Saratoga consignment for Blum after Fasig-Tipton’s inspection team led by Boyd Browning Jr. made its way to Cynthiana in the spring of 2021. Blum’s 2021 yearling crop also included another colt by Quality Road, a bay out of the stakes-winning Unbridled’s Song mare Inspired, and the Fasig-Tipton team liked both during the inspection.
“When Boyd and them came to the farm they were looking at the two horses, back and forth, back and forth; one, then the other,” Harrison said. “After a few days, and I’m sure they were going to think about it, they called and said they wanted him. We only wanted to take one Quality Road to Saratoga, so we sent him there and the other went to Keeneland.
Lanni, bidding for the SF Racing, Starlight and Madaket group, liked the other Quality Road, too, and bought him out of the Keeneland September sale for $650,000. The colt’s name was Driver’s Seat when he went through the ring, but was later changed to Carmel Road. He went 1-1-1 in five starts for the same ownership group that won the Preakness, earning a placing in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity, before being sold for $260,000 this spring at the Keeneland April horses of racing age sale.
National Treasure improved to 2-1-2 from six starts and picked up $990,000 for the win, raising his bankroll to $1,335,000 before his run in the Belmont Stakes.
“He’s a horse that’s always been . . . he won early, and he showed us there he was a nice horse, but we knew that he needed distance,” Baffert said. “It just took him awhile. He hasn’t really filled out into his frame, but we could tell [the way] he’s been working. His last few works were really strong, and he was working like a really good horse.”