BALTIMORE — Ramiro Restrepo prayed the bidding would not jump to $300,000.
He was already past his budget, but he and Gustavo Delgado Jr. so liked what they had seen from this 2-year-old colt — the ease of his movement and the pep that remained in his step after a hard workout.
Restrepo could not glimpse the competing bidder, hidden behind a wall at Timonium Fairgrounds. All he could do was hope that $290,000 would get it done.
A year later, Restrepo and Delgado are back in Maryland, about 10 miles away from Timonium at Pimlico Race Course. The horse they bought — yes, $290,000 did the trick — is with them. The world now knows him as Kentucky Derby champion Mage, and every eye at Pimlico will be on him Saturday when he tries to conjure a brilliant showing in the Preakness Stakes.
Restrepo and Delgado, whose father, Gustavo Sr., trains Mage, could only grin as they recounted the wondrous year that took them from a sale in Maryland to the biggest race in Maryland.
“It’s amazing when you look back,” Delgado said. “Right now, I’m just trying to be present, not too high or too low in the emotions.”
Did they see this coming when they watched that 2-year-old breeze at Timonium a few days after the 2022 Preakness? Well, sort of.
Restrepo, a bloodstock agent based in South Florida, was working on the theory that a stallion often produces his most gifted progeny during his first year at stud. So he had his eye out for sons and daughters of Good Magic, who ran second behind Justify in the 2018 Kentucky Derby and fourth behind the same victor in the 2018 Preakness. (That theory, by the way, is looking pretty good; Good Magic has three sons — Mage, Perform and Blazing Sevens — in this year’s Preakness.)
The Delgados, who had struck up a relationship with Restrepo a few years earlier at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, also fancied Good Magic’s potential as a sire. They and Restrepo had heard positive buzz from horsemen in Ocala, Fla., who had worked with his young progeny.
Restrepo had helped previous clients purchase horses at the Fasig-Tipton sale in Timonium, held annually the week after the Preakness, but this was Delgado Jr.’s first time. As they combed through potential targets, they hoped to buy for about $200,000.
But they were smitten enough with Mage’s workout that strict budgeting flew out the window.
“We’re not just looking at the times; we’re looking for efficiency of movement, his cadence, his stride, how he negotiates the turns to show athleticism,” Restrepo said. “He moved like a Porsche rather than a Caddy or a big SUV. He just took the turns so well.”
Not to mention the 2-year-old colt was the “spitting image” of Good Magic, a “beautiful horse” in Restrepo’s estimation.
“Please don’t go to $300,000, please!” he recalled thinking as bidding unfolded. Relief flooded his mind when the auctioneer’s gavel struck at $290,000.
“He didn’t like it,” Delgado Jr. said, recalling his father’s reaction when he learned what they had paid for the 2-year-old. “It’s one of those things where you follow your intuition. We had to have him. I told Ramiro, ‘Listen, we’re going to go after him, and then we’ll figure it out.’ "
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Figuring it out ultimately meant bringing in several partners representing hundreds of shareholders, many of whom paid $50 a pop on the investment app Commonwealth.
After the purchase last spring, Delgado Sr. took his time prepping Mage for his first race. While other potential Derby contenders debuted last summer and fall, he trained quietly in Florida.
Restrepo acknowledged there were times when he wondered if he and Delgado Jr. had bought the wrong horse. Second on their wish list in Timonium was a filly named Mimi Kakushi, and she won three straight races in Dubai while Mage was still developing.
When Mage finally did run at the end of January, he went right to the lead and won comfortably, but he was still seldom mentioned in rankings of potential Derby entrants. Only one horse since 1882, the physically overwhelming Justify, had won the Derby after not running as a 2-year-old. But the Delgados believed in their deliberate approach.
“He always showed ability,” Restrepo said. “What was so impressive about him was his mindset, how quickly he learned.”
Because Mage has run just four times and because he has shown a little more talent and a little more fitness with each career step, Delgado Jr. believes the colt has yet to deliver his best performance.
“I do think so, and I like that idea,” he said.
That might be hard to believe for fans who watched the 15-1 shot work his way steadily through the field and pass Two Phil’s down the stretch of the Derby. The performance, guided by Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, demonstrated more than raw speed. Mage held his charge in reserve and unleashed it when Castellano asked.
Restrepo had seen this potential in Mage’s runner-up performance at the April 1 Florida Derby, where he made a move from the back of the pack to the lead, only to finish a length behind Forte. Derby prognosticators focused on the lack of brilliance in Forte’s performance, but perhaps they should have been more tuned in to Mage’s obvious progress, his push-button acceleration after having dirt kicked in his face.
When he trained energetically coming out of that effort, the Delgados and Restrepo were convinced they had a real contender on their hands.
Mage’s win at Churchill Downs paid off the gamble Delgado Sr. took a decade earlier, when he left his successful stable in Venezuela to start over in South Florida and take on the best trainers in North America. In 2019, he took Bodexpress to the Derby and on to the Preakness, where the horse dumped his rider, John Velazquez, and famously attempted to finish the race on his own.
Mage has brought a more wanted type of attention to this father-son operation.
The Delgados have carried off their weeks in the spotlight with easy charm. Beside Mage’s stall at the Pimlico, they posted a sign, written in black marker against a yellow backdrop: “Dear Fan. I really appreciate you taking the time to come see me. It really means a lot to me. I also want to give you kisses and hugs. As you may already know I’m preparing for a big Race and I need to be as calm as possible and stay away from possible contamination. I promise that after we all win on Saturday, My trainer will let us take all the pictures we want. He always does. Thank you, Mage.”
They’re hoping for another joyous chapter in this improbable script Saturday and then? Back to Timonium for this year’s 2-year-old sale.
“Obviously we’ll be there again,” Restrepo said. “Trying to find the next Mage.”