LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For the second time in five Kentucky Derby runnings, it's time to write a story about a scratched favorite. There's almost nothing to say, because the disappointment of competition is so great, but the respect for safety must be greater.
And that's tough when you're chasing the accomplishment of a lifetime.
Saturday morning, the bad news came from chief state veterinarian Nick Smith to Mike Repole co-owner of Kentucky Derby favorite Forte and trainer Todd Pletcher. The vets thought something was off and were going to scratch him from the race.
Repole described himself as "sad, devastated and disappointed." Repole also talked. And, in doing that, he did a service to the sport. It needs transparency. It doesn't need silence. The sport already is mysterious enough to the general public. Repole didn't shy away from the difficult responsibility to the public, even in an awful moment for him personally.
(And that is not, by the way, to be critical of Smith, who walked away from WDRB's Rick Bozich when he was seeking an explanation this morning. Smith has procedures to follow. There will be a report to write. There will be some level of explanation. Smith is doing his job.)
It's particularly difficult for Repole, because he had to scratch another Kentucky Derby favorite, Uncle Mo, the day before the Derby because of a gastrointestinal infection.
"I think the vets are being overly cautious," Repole said. "And I understand that. The safety of the horse is the most important thing. . . . You know, it's a big stage. Everyone is looking at this race. We haven't had the best week here, and I think they were overly-cautious. But I have to understand and respect the fact they were overly-cautious."
Repole said Forte either stepped on a rock or took a bad step in training Wednesday and developed a bruise. Rumors about him quickly spread, as they will do on the backsides of racetracks.
"On Wednesday, he definitely developed ... a very minor bruise," Repole said. "Todd and his staff — and Todd is the greatest and best trainer out there — cooperated with the state, notified them immediately. They checked him out. We get x-rays. Clean. What they call a hoof test — I'm learning enough about this that I could be a vet — and found a tender spot in one of the spots. ... Both the grooms ... worked on him day and night. He had improvement every, single day, including today."
Repole said that several independent vets looked at Forte and told him that Forte would run in the Derby. Included in those was former state vet Larry Bramlage.
At the same time, Churchill is under the brightest lights in the business. A Derby qualifier, Wild on Ice, had to be euthanized after training nine days ago. In the first two days of Churchill's spring meet, four other horses lost their lives from various causes, including two from Derby trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who now has been suspended by Churchill Downs with his colt, Lord Miles, scratched by state stewards.
If you think that state officials and vets are being overly cautious, you're absolutely right. If you think that the good of the Kentucky Derby may be causing them to make decisions they wouldn't make in Race No. 5 next weekend, you're also right.
Joseph, angry at Churchill's suspension, said the track was acting more to protect its own image than to treat him in a more fair manner.
And that's probably a valid concern. But when your image is basically the sport's image, you have some reason for going to extraordinary lengths to protect it. The cynical side of me also notes that NBC will be talking about a sport scratching a favorite out an abundance of caution this afternoon when the national broadcast starts, instead of the equine deaths this week.
So be it. There's no criticism here for the decision by Smith.
All the time in sports, we say the trainers will decide when athletes return from injuries. The doctors will dictate recovery time. The vets should have more say in the running of these animals.
Today, the vets had their say, and while we may not like it — and for our own entertainment purposes may wish to see this colt run — we need to respect the call.
Can you imagine the stampede of criticism that would've thundered down on Churchill and the sport had Forte run and been injured or even died after the flurry of x-rays and vet checks the colt had this week? Even if all those tests came back looking good?
It's a tough thing. Pletcher has won the Derby twice. Repole was looking to win it for the first time. Hopefully, he'll have other chances. Hopefully, he's back.
"You try to be as transparent about the sport as you can," Repole said. "You know, it was a bruise. If the race was on Tuesday, I think he'd be running. If the race was next Saturday, I think he'd be running. But, unfortunately, as I said, you only get to be a male colt on the first Saturday in May one time."
Five years ago, the bad news came to trainer Richard Mandella, one of the best in the game. He had to make the decision to scratch favorite Omaha Beach and give up the opportunity to win the most famous race of them all, a race he has never won. He was utterly disappointed. But then at the barn, I saw his face when his colt, Omaha Beach, came up to him, nuzzled up to his face, and he smiled. And I snapped one of my favorite racetrack photos ever. You could see the emotion and yet, strangely, the comfort, that the colt was giving back.
We've got to be very careful not to view sporting events, or the athletes who compete in them, merely as objects for our own entertainment. We can't lose the fact that they are real people who achieve great things and have disappointments and even make big mistakes.
I suppose what I'm saying is that not getting to see the race we thought we'd see is a small price to pay for the good of the future of the race. The tough thing is that no amount of precaution can ensure track officials that calamity won't still befall the event. That's the particularly difficult nature of this sport.
"I'm sad. I'm devastated," Repole said. "I'm devastated for Todd Pletcher, devastated for Todd Pletcher's barn. I'm devastated about my friends and family back at the hotel, who I get to tell that we had to scratch the Derby favorite. It's almost deja vu all over again. We did everything we can. We did everything within the system. We worked within the system. Total transparency, and honestly, I'm shocked because a bruise can be 24 hours or a bruise can be 72 hours or 96 hours or it could be a week. The reason why we galloped him today, we probably didn't have to by the way, was because Todd wants to make sure everything is alright. He put a new shoe on him today. Many people would never do that today, but we did. . . .Five horses, as of today, scratched in this race, and I'm telling you that five years ago, there might have been none. I like that we're taking extra precaution. I'm all for it. I'm hurt for Todd, the staff, my racing stable team that are going to be a lot more devastated than me today. Actually, I'm going to be more devastated for them than myself. We just need some consistency here."
Overly cautious? You bet. This is where we have gotten in horse racing.
But you know what? This is where we needed to get.
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