BALTIMORE — “Push button” is a term trainers and jockeys frequently use to describe a horse’s ability, and it seems to have become the quintessential description for Kentucky Derby winner Mage.
Jockey Javier Castellano broke it out two weeks ago when describing Mage’s one-length victory over Two Phil’s in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
“When you ask, you push a button, the horse is going to give me everything he has,” Castellano said.
Mage has displayed a wide range of running styles in his four career races since January — winning his maiden from the front, winning the Kentucky Derby from the back — and it’s a big reason his connections are confident as the 8-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $1.65 million, Grade 1 Preakness Stakes.
No matter what he might face at Pimlico Race Course, Mage has displayed the ability to get himself into position whenever he chooses.
Preakness Stakes field: From favorites to long shots, here’s why your horse can — or can’t — win
“He’s like a Lamborghini, like a Ferrari, vroom!” assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. said. “I think he has a good response; that’s his biggest asset. You don’t usually see that on the dirt. You see it more on the turf, that kind of turn of foot. When he’s feeling right and everything’s going well for him, every time the rider asks him, boom, he’s right there.”
“Exactly,” he said. “That’s a good term.”
Mage is looking to become the first Kentucky Derby winner to also win the Preakness since Justify did it in 2018 on his way to winning the Triple Crown.
Unraced as a 2-year-old — just like Justify — Mage might have been deemed a pacesetter given his debut. He set blistering fractions of 22.78 seconds for the quarter-mile and 45.88 seconds for the half-mile on his way to a 3 ¾-length victory in a maiden special weight Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park.
Five weeks later in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, Mage stalked the early front-runners, appeared ready to make a run for the lead off the final turn but was steadied in traffic down the stretch and finished fourth.
Castellano wasn’t deterred.
“We confronted the best horses in the country,” Castellano said after the race, “and he’s going to move forward.”
Troubling trend continues: Churchill Downs suffers eighth horse fatality in past three weeks
Mage has been more of a closer in his past two races. He was dead last early in a field of 12 in the Grade 1 Florida Derby before rallying for second, a length behind the victorious Forte. And he was 16th of 18 on the first turn in the Kentucky Derby before rallying to win.
A common theme in all four of Mage’s starts has been a slow start in his first 2-3 steps from the starting gate. Delgado hasn’t fretted about it.
“I think he’s just a half-step slower than the rest of the horses,” he said. “If he does the same thing he did last time, we’re fine with it. Sometimes you don’t want to change too much. If you keep bringing them to the gate (for schooling), they get anxious. We don’t want that.”
If he breaks slow Saturday at Pimlico, the eight-horse field won’t present as much traffic for Mage as the Florida Derby or Kentucky Derby did.
National Treasure and Coffeewithchris figure to be the early pacesetters, and, given his history, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mage anywhere from third to eighth entering the first turn.
From there, it’s simply up to Castellano to decide when to push that “button.”
“It’s pretty much about how he breaks and getting a good rhythm and making his run,” Delgado said. “We just want him to be relaxed the first half of the race and then have a fair shot to make his move. That’s it.”
2023 Preakness Stakes
Post time: 7:01 p.m. EDT Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Purse: $1.65 million. Grade: 1. Distance: 1 3/16 miles. TV: NBC. Jockey weight: 126 pounds.
1. National Treasure, Bob Baffert, John Velazquez, 4-1
2. Chase the Chaos, Ed Moger Jr., Shannon Russell, 50-1
3. Mage, Gustavo Delgado, Javier Castellano, 8-5
4. Coffeewithchris, John Salzman Jr., Jaime Rodriguez, 20-1
5. Red Route One, Steve Asmussen, Joel Rosario, 10-1
6. Perform, Shug McGaughey, Feargal Lynch, 15-1
7. Blazing Sevens, Chad Brown, Irad Ortiz Jr., 6-1
8. First Mission, Brad Cox, Luis Saez, 5-2 SCRATCHED
Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; email@example.com; Twitter: @KentuckyDerbyCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Preakness Stakes field: Why Kentucky Derby winner Mage is the favorite