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Mugatu Brings Engler to Racing’s Biggest Stage

Trainer Jeff Engler could not help but get excited when he received a call from Churchill Downs telling him that Mugatu , fifth-place finisher of the Blue Grass Stakes (G1), had enough points to qualify for the also-eligible list in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Sending the colt to Louisville, Ky., from his base at Belterra Park in Cincinnati, Engler waited to see if two horses would scratch and give him a chance to experience the Derby.

It was not to be. Mugatu came up one scratch shy of having a chance to win the roses, but the consolation prize is that the Kentucky-bred son of Blofeld   is now primed and ready for a career-defining performance May 18 in the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

“It’s exciting,” Engler said. “It’s everybody’s dream who does this. … Just to have a chance to run in it is incredible.”

Engler developed his love for the sport working at a Quarter Horse farm when he was 14. After working in corporate America for 16 years, the Ohio native decided it was time to pursue what he loved.

“One day I was driving home and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do my passion.’ I just dropped it and started,” Engler said.

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Trainer Jeff Engler at Churchill Downs on April 29, 2024. Photo By: Chad B. Harmon
Photo: Chad B. Harmon

Jeff Engler

Engler saddled his first starter June 7, 2009, at River Downs, which is now known as Belterra Park, and picked up his first win about a month later.

Engler has mostly trained at tracks in Ohio, Kentucky, and the bordering states, but has also based his string in Florida and California. He has saddled 211 winners from 1,867 starters. Should Mugatu win the Preakness, he will be Engler’s first graded winner.

“It’s a tough business, it’s up and down,” Engler said. “We’ll go from 10 horses to 25 horses back to 10 horses. … It’s a tough industry, but we’re going to keep plugging away.”

One of the first owners to sign on with Engler was Average Joe Racing Stables, who co-own Mugatu with Dan Wells. Engler went to high school in Liberty Township, Ohio, with one of the partners, Chris Britton.

“Average Joe Racing is a conglomerate of seven guys who are average joe guys,” Engler said. “They love the sport. None of them are billionaires, but they all came together and have a lot of passion for the sport. … They’ve been with me for 15 years and here we are in the Preakness.”

The team potentially struck gold with Mugatu. Engler gave agent Dan Preiss a “whopping” budget of $15,000 at the 2023 Ocala Breeders’ Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training. He returned with Mugatu for $14,000.

“(Average Joe Racing) had some good horses, but they never had a horse like this,” Engler said. “I’ve never had a horse like this.”

A 12-time starter, Mugatu is tied with Just Steel  for the most experienced horse in the race. Despite only reaching the winner’s circle once, Engler believes the colt will flourish as the distances lengthen and he consistently runs on dirt. Most of his starts have come on either turf or synthetic.

Mugatu; Morning Pimlico 5-16-24
Photo: Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club

Mugatu trains for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course

“I like his stride a little bit better on the dirt,” said Engler. “He seems to be more comfortable on the dirt.”

Mugatu shocked the betting public when, at odds of 181-1, he closed from last to finish fifth in the Blue Grass, beaten just 7 1/2 lengths behind Sierra Leone . All four horses that finished ahead of him competed in the Kentucky Derby.

“He ran a really good race,” Engler said. “Was still coming, had a monster gallop out. (Blue Grass jockey) Joe Talamo told me this horse needs more ground.”

Engler felt Mugatu was really hitting his peak in the leadup to the Kentucky Derby.

“He was training outstanding,” Engler said of Derby week at Churchill Downs. “He was on the bridle, he was enjoying it. The press and all the hoopla didn’t bother him one bit, never turned a hair.

“I think he enjoys being a big horse, he really likes the camera. He’s going to really up his game.”

Time will tell if Mugatu translates his stellar training form to the race of his life in the Preakness. Win or lose, Engler is enjoying the ride he has been taken on. Although he will not have much time to explore Baltimore, there is one special thing that Engler plans to do during Preakness week.

“The only thing I am going to make a point to do is go see Blofeld,” Engler said of Mugatu’s sire.

Eased just off the pace in the turn by red-hot jockey John Velazquez, favored Blofeld then rallied along the rail to win the $200,000 Grade II Futurity Stakes by three-quarters of a length at Belmont Park.
Photo: Adam Coglianese

Blofeld wins the 2014 Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park

Blofeld stands at Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., for a fee of $5,000. In 2023, Blofeld had 30 winners from 52 starters, including two stakes winners. In 2024, he has 20 winners from 35 starters with two stakes winners. He ranks fourth on the Maryland sires list and sixth in the Mid-Atlantic region through May 17. According to Jockey Club statistics, Blofeld covered 35 mares in his first season at stud in 2018, but covered 86 mares in 2022 and 97 mares last year.

“For a small sampling of horses that he has, his statistics are incredible,” Engler said. “He’s throwing runner after runner, winner after winner. … Now he’s getting better mares. (Mugatu winning the Preakness) would be a big help. I think he’s going to get better.”

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