BALTIMORE -- Mage's path through Triple Crown season is not an easy one.
The Kentucky Derby winner opened as the favorite for this weekend's Preakness Stakes, but Mage will have to top a field that includes Bob Baffert -trained National Treasure and others to become the first horse to take the first two Triple Crown races since Justify in 2018.
The race changed when top contender First Mission was scratched early Friday, leaving only seven to run. The result will depend on how Mage handles the two-week turnaround, what pace develops and whether jockey Javier Castellano can set up another winning trip down the stretch.
Purchased for $290,000 a year ago up the road from Pimlico at a sale in Timonium, Mage is making just his fifth career start after not running as a 2-year-old and making his debut Jan. 28. He joined Justify as the only Derby winners not to run as 2-year-olds since Apollo in 1882.
Mage was beaten by Forte -- who was the Derby favorite before getting scratched -- in his second and third career races, finishing fourth and second. That was enough to get him into the field at Churchill Downs, and winning it quieted any doubts about Mage being too lightly raced to contend with the best 3-year-olds in the world.
"Experience at this point, I don't think it's relevant," assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. said. "Every time he races, he's getting more mature. Last race, he didn't look like an apprentice to anybody."
After winning in Kentucky at odds of 14-1, Mage was set as the 8-5 morning line favorite in a field of seven for the Preakness. He's the only horse back from the Derby two weeks ago.
Although trainer Gustavo Delgado Sr. has experience from his native Venezuela bringing a horse back on that short of rest, it's less common in the U.S. among top thoroughbreds.
"I don't think there's any trainer who will tell you he's 100% sure that (his horse is) not going to regress," Delgado Jr. said. "But other than that, all the signs -- the good ones -- allowed us to take this chance out here."
First Mission opened at odds of 5-2 before getting scratched because veterinarians discovered a left hind issue. National Treasure was next at 4-1.
Baffert told the track that late-blooming National Treasure "would have been a great Kentucky Derby-in-September horse." Baffert won a Derby in September three years ago with Authentic when the Triple Crown races were run off their normal schedule and out of order because of the pandemic.
National Treasure doesn't get that luxury, but Baffert said: "The talent is there. We just haven't seen it in full yet."
Baffert, who is back at the Preakness after missing last year because of a suspension issued by Kentucky that Maryland honored, has won the second jewel of the Triple Crown a record-tying seven times. Jockey John Velazquez is 0 for 12 in his career in the Preakness.
Blazing Sevens (6-1), Red Route One (10-1) and Perform (15-1) are the other top contenders. The long shots are Coffeewithchris (20-1) and Chase the Chaos (50-1).
WHAT TO EXPECT
The biggest question leading to the Preakness has been similar to the Derby: How fast will the pace be? Mage co-owner Ramiro Restrepo also assumed there'd be little pace in Kentucky to set things up well for his horse to close.
"You know what happens when you assume, right?" he said earlier this week.
Now the assumption is Coffeewithchris will provide early speed. Baffert's top horses also tend to be forwardly placed.
Mage is not a front-runner, so the faster the other horses go, the better. His training team just wants him to be relaxed the first half of the race and let Castellano navigate from there.
"It's pretty much about how he breaks and getting a good rhythm and then he's running," Delgado Jr. said. "Hopefully he puts in the same kind of effort he did at the Derby, or even his previous race at the Florida Derby. If he does that, he should be right there."