SNIDER: Mage clearly best in Preakness

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The Preakness Stakes has become an afterthought to a Bruno Mars infield concert.

It’s the worst field in modern Preakness history. Kentucky Derby winner Mage is the only Derby entrant to also enter the second leg of the Triple Crown, and Preakness second-choice First Mission was withdrawn on Friday after a veterinarian review.

It’s a field of seven, with Mage’s only challengers being trainer Bob Baffert’s National Treasure and emerging local phenom Perform. Mage is 8-5 in the morning line, but probably 3-5 come post time because there’s little reason to doubt the solid Derby champion falls to such a mediocre field. You’re either betting Baffert returning from a Triple Crown suspension is bringing an ace for redemption or Perform continues a Preakness history of locals surprising. Even then, that’s a stretch.

The choice is Mage, Perform and National Treasure respectively for a 3-6-1 triple that probably pays $49.

It’s a disgraceful effort by horse owners who relish the Derby, but don’t care enough about the sport to even show up for the Preakness. It’s not Pimlico’s fault. Management has long lavished perks on owners to come to the race. It’s just a growing trend of owners no longer worrying about the Triple Crown. And, if they don’t care enough to support the series, the sport is truly slipping into obscurity. The 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s great Triple Crown sweep is merely an afterthought.

Maryland racing is indeed amidst a crossroad crisis. A deal to save the industry was scrapped by the pandemic. Laurel Park may close. Pimlico might emerge as a new facility bolstered by off-track wagering. Either way, a state once among the national leaders is a forgotten backwater illustrated by such a poor Preakness field.

Still, Mage is a refreshing story. He’s not some one-shot winner like last year’s Derby champion Rich Strike at 81-1. Owned by Venezuelans, Mage didn’t race as a two-year old, but has steadily improved in four starts. A terrible start saw him pass 10 rivals midway through the Derby and five in the stretch to win convincingly. With only six rivals, Mage shouldn’t get into early trouble.

Mage can’t wait until the final turn of the shorter 1 3/16-mile race or National Treasure steals the race. Baffert arrives with a speedball off two sharp workouts. The seven-time Preakness winner isn’t returning from a Triple Crown suspension over 2021 Derby winner Medina Spirit testing positive for a minor medication positive without bringing a big horse. Maybe National Treasure doesn’t have quite the stamina to hold off Mage, but an easy early pace might see him endure and Baffert redeemed as the nation’s best trainer in big races.

Perform has two straight wins in minor races. Yet, Federico Tesio Stakes winners over the years have a way of hitting the Preakness board. Watch Perform compete early against National Treasure that could compromise both in the final yards.

Whether Mage can go on to win the Belmont Stakes and become a Triple Crown winner is uncertain. But, he’s a worthy candidate. Too bad the Preakness won’t better validate his victory.

Follow Rick Snider on Twitter: @Snide_Remarks

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