Unraced 2-year-old could follow similar path that led Bernardini to Preakness glory in 2006
A Maryland Jockey Club/Preakness Stakes release (Keeneland photo of First Mission and jockey Luis Saez edging past Arabian Lion to win Saturday’s $400,000 Stonestreet Lexington (G3)
LEXINGTON, KY. — Godolphin’s 3-year-old colt First Mission likely will use his Saturday victory in Keeneland’s $400,000 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes as launching pad to the 148th Preakness Stakes on May 20 at Pimlico Race Course.
“That’s definitely the spot on the calendar that would make the most sense,” trainer Brad Cox said of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. “Obviously we have to see what happens for the Kentucky Derby and who does what there. But it’s one of those things where it would be the logical spot moving forward.”
The 1 1/16-mile Lexington was the last Kentucky Derby qualifying race. But First Mission, who won the Grade 3 stakes by a half-length over Arabian Lion, was making his stakes debut and the 20 points accrued for first place comes far short of making the Derby’s 20-horse field. However, the five-week timing to the 1 3/16-mile Preakness is ideal.
“A lot of talent; we’ve liked him for a while,” Cox said right after the Lexington. “We always thought he’d be a horse who could get around two turns or be his best at two turns – and maybe farther. We certainly think he could get — oh, I don’t know, a mile and 3/16th — maybe?”
That answer was for the benefit of reporters, with Cox anticipating the next question: Where might First Mission run next?
“I thought (the Lexington) was an impressive effort for a horse that had run only three times,” he said, adding of jockey Luis Saez, “Luis made the comment that up the backside, he was kind of eyeballing the horse on the outside. He said, ‘When I asked him to pick it up, he started to accelerate,’ then obviously dropped down to the inside. That was probably the winning move there. He didn’t want to swing too wide off the turn and lose a lot of ground. Overall, a good heads-up ride from Luis, and he is a horse that is continuing to learn. He should get something out of each and every race moving forward.
First Mission – a son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Street Sense, who stands at Darley America – went off as the Lexington favorite in only his third career start. He did not run as a 2-year-old. After finishing a very close second while sprinting in his Feb. 18 debut at the Fair Grounds, he returned a month later to take a 1 1/16-mile maiden race by 6 3/4 lengths. Saez, who rode Godolphin’s two-time champion and 2021 Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Essential Quality for Cox, was aboard First Mission for the first time in the Lexington.
“We had him last year as a 2-year-old and he just wasn’t keeping pace last summer,” Cox said. “There wasn’t anything wrong, no surgeries or anything. He just needed some time to go to the farm and be just a regular horse instead of a racehorse.” Upon his return, “He showed he’s a runner. We sent him down to the Fair Grounds, and he breezed well and continued to get better every week…. Just very fortunate to be a part of what we hope is a big career for him.”
Said Michael Banahan, Godolphin USA Director of Bloodstock: “He ran the way we were hoping he’d run. It was a big step going from an easy maiden win. We knew he had plenty of talent, plenty of quality. But you never know until you step up to that graded level what they’re going to do. He was tested out there (Saturday). He didn’t have the easiest race in the world: made it tight on him coming around the bend coming down there. You have to be brave to do that. So, I think he passed a lot of tests, especially class test and bravery test as well. Showed a lot of character. We were very proud of him. We anticipated he could do that, and we’re just grateful it was proven out on the racetrack that he could be that good.”
Godolphin principal Sheikh Mohammed’s first American Triple Crown race victory came in the 2006 Preakness with Bernardini, who took an early-career path similar to First Mission en route to Preakness glory in Baltimore.
Bernardini, who ran under Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley banner and was trained by Tom Albertrani, also did not race at two, won on his second attempt and then captured Aqueduct’s Withers (G3) before victory in the Preakness. Bernardini went on to win the Jim Dandy (G2), Travers (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) against older horses before finishing second behind Invasor in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to secure the 3-year-old championship.
“Both horses just started a little bit late, weren’t going to make the Derby,” Banahan said, comparing First Mission to Bernardini, “Which is OK. Obviously, we’d all love to make the Derby. (But) if he can turn out to be a horse as good as Bernardini was or win the type of races he won, we’d be happy.”
Trainer Bob Baffert was non-committal about Lexington runner-up Arabian Lion, saying in a text, “I was happy with his effort but not sure about Preakness.”
Louisiana Derby runner-up Disarm finished third to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby’s 20-horse starting gate. While the Derby is the objective, owner Ron Winchell indicated that Preakness is an option if Disarm appears to need more time between races.
Winchell and trainer Steve Asmussen finished second in both the Derby and Preakness last year with favored Epicenter, who went on to be voted 3-year-old champion. Winchell and Asmussen also were second in the 2021 Preakness Stakes with Midnight Bourbon.
“Obviously running second (in the Derby) and second in the Preakness two years in a row, we’d love to get back and accomplish both of those,” Winchell said.