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Here’s why Mage comes up short at the Preakness Stakes

Want to know who’s going to win Saturday’s Preakness? It’s pretty simple, really. It says here there are two horses that could find the winner’s circle at Pimlico Race Course, and we’re predicting Kentucky Derby winner Mage is not one of them.

Let’s examine the two colts that I believe have the best shot at depriving Mage of the opportunity to head to Belmont Park in three weeks with the Triple Crown on the line. Unless he proves me wrong, and I’ve been wrong countless times before, Mage is not in the same class with American Pharoah and Justify, two of the 13 Triple Crown winners.

Before we delve into the credentials of our two likely winners, here’s a bit of interesting info you might consider if placing any wagers: Six is the lucky number. The most winners of the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown drew that post number. Eight of the past 11 Preakness winners broke from post positions 1 through 6.

OK, let’s get down to business:

First Mission

Beware the new shooters.

Whereas Mage was running his eyeballs out two weeks ago, the Brad Cox-trained son of Street Sense was munching on carrots and mints in his stall after winning the Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 15.

First Mission will have had 35 days to recharge his batteries since winning the Lexington by a half length.

He’s got some tactical early speed, meaning he won’t be closing from the clouds in the stretch, and he brings a two-race winning streak into the race.

Another factor in First Mission’s favor is he’ll be ridden by Luis Saez, who is turning into one of the best jockeys in the business. Saez, 30, is second in the nation behind Irad Ortiz Jr. in victories (163-116) and money earned ($13.3 million-$9.6 million).

Cox has two Triple Crown victories – the Derby via Medina Spirit’s disqualification and the Belmont in 2021 with Essential Quality.

National Treasure

First off, never discount trainer Bob Baffert’s chances in any type of race, let alone one of the American Classics. Baffert has won the Preakness seven times, most recently with Justify in 2018. That’s tied with R. Wyndham Walden, who won seven in the 1870s and 1880s.

Baffert has had a knack lately of drawing the rail in big races, and he did it again with the Quality Road colt who displayed great promise as a 2-year-old when finishing third behind Forte and Cave Rock in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

But National Treasure, back in Baffert’s barn after finishing fourth while under Tim Yakteen’s care in the Santa Anita Derby, hasn’t taken that one big step forward during his sophomore campaign. He hasn’t run terribly – taking third in the Grade III Sham Stakes along with his Santa Anita Derby finish – but he’ll have to turn in his best effort of 2023 to find the winner’s circle Saturday.

Why don’t we think Mage can repeat his Derby victory? I’m not saying he can’t win. He certainly has a better shot than Rich Strike last year, but two factors are working against him.

Quick turnaround: He’s never come back in two weeks. That’s a lot to ask of a horse who’s never done it. It’s a major reason why he’s the only horse in the Preakness that ran in the Derby on May 6. Even the connections for second- and third-place finishers in the Run for the Roses, Two Phil’s and Angel of Empire, passed on Saturday’s race in favor of perhaps waiting for the Belmont on June 10.

The pace: So far, Mage has needed a swift pace to collect the top prize. He got it in the Derby (half in 45.73) and Florida Derby (46.71). He closed from 15th in the 18-horse Derby to win by a length and came from last in the 12-horse Florida Derby to finish a close second behind Forte, beaten a length. He may not get that fast pace in the Preakness.

Some are expecting National Treasure to be on the lead heading into the first turn given his start from the rail, and the speculation makes sense. The only other true speed in the race is 20-1 longshot Coffeewithchris.

Perform could also display some early lick.

It says here a First Mission-National Treasure exacta box makes sense. Want to try a trifecta? Toss in Mage, who should be closing well enough to grab third place.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73

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