It's called the "Puma System" and it has turned the 2023 Triple Crown on its ear.
It was created by trainer Gustavo Delgado, a.k.a. "The Puma," who crafted it during his reign as Venezuela's top trainer and the winner of the country's Triple Crown three times along with a number of other classic victories.
He brought it with him when he arrived in the United States in 2014, tinkered with it a bit, and lo and behold he sent out 15-1 shot Mage to win the $3 million Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6 at Churchill Downs, where he withstood the rigors of a 1 1/4-mile classic in just his fourth career start.
What's the system?
"My father trains the heck out of his horses," said Gustavo Delgado Jr., an assistant trainer for his dad.
That's the short and the long of it.
Basically, Delgado works and gallops his horses longer than most American trainers and gives them much more vigorous exercise between works. Those works are typically slower than what U.S. trainers ask of their runners.
"This is my experience," said the elder Delgado, who also has won U.S. Grade 1 stakes with Bodexpress (2020 Clark Stakes), and Paolo Queen (2016 Test Stakes), and has notched 276 North American wins. "This is what we normally do in Venezuela. We train horses with longer six- or seven-furlong workouts, so they have more stamina."
That stamina was surely evident in Mage, as the runner up from the Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa rallied from 16th in the opening leg of the Triple Crown, grabbed the lead leaving the eighth pole, and rolled to a length victory over Two Phil's. That win established the 3-year-old son of Good Magic as the 8-5 morning-line favorite in the May 20 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
As the son of the Big Brown mare Puca tries to keep his Triple Crown bid alive in the Preakness for the ownership group of Delgado's OGMA Investments, Ramiro Restrepo, Sterling Racing, and CMNWLTH, Delgado will be sending him to the post Saturday without a timed work, just gallops and jogs for fine tuning.
"I do not have to do much with him," said the trainer. "He's feeling happy, and he has grown with each race."
While that regimen is understandable given the two-week gap between the first and second legs of the Triple Crown, Mage's final works for the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby were atypical for both races. Instead of the standard quick five-furlong blowout a week before the race that most trainers rely on, Delgado gave Mage a slow six-furlong breeze eight days before the Florida Derby.
His time was 1:16 3/5, the only work at the distance that March 24 morning. His final work for the Kentucky Derby was nearly identical, six furlongs in 1:16 4/5 April 29, a week before the Run for the Roses. Again, he was the only horse to work the distance on that morning.
In comparison, the first six furlongs in the Run for the Roses were contested in 1:10.11.
"That's Gustavo's training method, the horse picks it up pole by pole," said Restrepo, the bloodstock agent and part-owner who picked out Mage for $290,000 from the Sequel Bloodstock consignment at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale. "Always a strong gallop out. For the Derby, those three-quarter works were actually mile works because after the wire he'll go another quarter mile or three-eighths on his own galloping out strongly."
Looking at Mage's past 12 workouts, dating back to late December, none of them received a bullet for being the fastest of two or more horses.
"That's the Venezuelan influence in my father's training," said the younger Delgado. "People don't realize he was Venezuela's top trainer."
Actually, what put the "Puma System" over the top in the U.S. was the sprinkling of some North American methods into that Venezuelan model. Delgado has put some quick works into Mage, mostly before the colt's winning debut Jan. 28. On Jan. 14, he drilled 1:01 out of the gate, the second-fastest of 48 works, and he received his lone bullet Dec. 23 when he worked three furlongs in :35 3/5 out of the gate to best 15 other workers.
Clearly the blending of speed and stamina-building has paid a huge dividend. As his father's assistant, the younger Delgado has seen the approach evolve a bit in recent years.
"My father has added some of the American style and that has worked for him," Delgado said. "It wasn't easy. There was a lot of trial and error before he found the right mix that you see in Mage."
Mage, bred by Grandview Equine, continued his training for the Preakness May 16 with a leisurely gallop of a mile and a half around Pimlico's main track.
"Everything is routine. That's the most important thing right now. Keeping him on his routine. He's feeling good, we couldn't be happier," Restrepo said. "(Mage has) learned Gustavo's training program and you can see that when he picks up the rhythm on his own. Watch the Kentucky Derby, that move, he started picking it up on his own. (Jockey Javier Castellano) was just guiding him, picking the right holes, and when he asked him, (Mage) finished up. From the eighth pole home, he was accelerating not decelerating. He's coming home with everything. He's a really smart horse and he's doing everything right."
Most of the other seven expected starters also logged similar morning exercise Tuesday morning.
First Mission, who arrived at Pimlico Monday, put in a mile gallop to introduce himself to the racing surface. Trainer Brad Cox said the 5-2 second choice handled the track well and is heading into the Preakness in great shape after a victory in the April 15 Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
"He put in two great works for this race and is really doing well," Cox said. "We've always liked him and he is doing better than ever and is ready for a big effort."
First Mission drew the outside post in the field of eight, which satisfied Cox. The homebred son of Street Sense has tactical speed and should be able to sit just off the leaders in a 1 3/16-mile test that has a distinct lack of early speed.
"He should be able to work out a good trip from there," Cox said about the post.
National Treasure, trainer Bob Baffert's hope for a record-breaking eighth Preakness, galloped 1 3/8 miles.
"We're on our regular California routine right now," said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. "He got over the track very well. It's a nice track.
"They seem to bounce right over it."
A son of Quality Road, National Treasure is the 4-1 third choice in the morning line.