Writer's note: The following column was written one day before another dramatic Kentucky Derby turn. State veterinarian Nick Smith informed trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole that after an examination at the barn this morning, he made the decision to scratch Forte, the morning line favorite, from the Kentucky Derby. Forte is the second favorite in the past five years to scratch after the morning line odds had been set but, more unusually, is the second horse to be scratched by state racing officials this year.
Repole described himself as "devastated." Smith would not comment when WDRB's Rick Bozich questioned him at the barn. Certainly, safety issues will rule the day after the death of a Derby contender last week and four more horses since the start of the spring meet.
For a Derby that was to have been a prelude to the event's 150-year extravaganza next year, Derby 149 is doing everything it can to etch its own place in memory.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- We asked for it, of course. This circus on Central Avenue. It may not be the Ringling Brothers, but with all of us parking at the fairgounds anyway, can I interest you in Ring Road?
Are they running a shuttle for the scratched Derby contenders?
Even before the crowds showed up on the backside of Churchill Downs this week, I was thinking of this Kentucky Derby as "the forgotten Derby." Everything in these parts is gearing up toward next year, the big 1-5-0.
The signs you see all around Churchill Downs are promoting Kentucky Derby No. 150, "A Derby to Remember." You can already buy tickets and merchandise at derby150.com. Next year is when, (as I termed it until the past few days) the Churchill Downs Death Star becomes fully operational.
That was not a good choice of expression, even when Thurby was on May the Fourth. Churchill Downs will indeed be fully up and running and at full splendor a year from now, new $200 million paddock in place, First Turn Club bustling.
But Kentucky Derby 149 will not be ignored, it seems. And not in a good way. To put it plainly, the past week hasn’t been much of a party – at least if you love horses and are paying attention.
None other than PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has said, "The biggest horse race of the year is now preceded by a body count."
And Churchill Downs and Kentucky racing officials have responded in a forceful way.
Wild on Ice, a Derby horse, pulled up after a workout a week ago, having injured his left hind leg. Hours later, he had to be euthanized. On Churchill’s opening night of racing, a Saffie Joseph-trained horse died from unknown causes after collapsing, and another trainer’s horse died in the paddock, flipping after apparently becoming distracted by lights on a DJ stage, according to The Daily Racing Form. He flipped again as they tried to remove his saddle, and was euthanized at an equine hospital after sustaining a broken neck.
On Tuesday, another Joseph horse died mysteriously, and a D. Wayne Lukas filly had to be euthanized after flipping multiple times upon stumbling in traffic on the turf course.
That’s 5 equine deaths in 6 days, plus two more injuries on Wednesday, though both of those horses apparently were back comfortably in their barns on Thursday morning after having been vanned off.
All right Derby 149, we notice you. You have our attention. There’s no need to turn this into a you-know-what show.
On Thursday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission took the unusual step of scratching Lord Miles, trained by Joseph, from the Kentucky Derby as it looks into the deaths out of Joseph’s barn further. Not long later, Churchill Downs chimed in with an indefinite suspension of Joseph at all his properties until further notice.
A horse just dropping dead after a race is not a normal outcome. Racing statistics that Churchill VP for communications Darren Rogers was talking with me about something in the neighborhood of one in every 15,000 races. Not 2-for-2.
Joseph told WDRB on Thursday that state and track regulators had looked in his barn and left satisfied. He said he’d pulled the bloodwork on all his horses at Keeneland and it had come back clean.
Be that as it may, the actions of the KHRC and Churchill on Thursday made a clear statement – the Derby is too valuable to risk a catastrophe on national television. It’s too important to the sport.
In short, they had no choice.
"I am a scapegoat," Joseph told WDRB’s Conroy Delouche on Thursday night at his barn.
That may well be. But better a scapegoat than another dead horse. Churchill Downs cannot risk another mishap on two of the most-attended and watched days in American thoroughbred racing.
Churchill has the additional motive of wishing to be at the forefront of horse safety issues. That’s why it suspended Bob Baffert for two years after Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a race-day banned medication. The Derby is too valuable to the sport to mess with.
You can argue whether Baffert really messed with it, given the circumstances, but that is the message nonetheless.
So the move, unprecedented though it may be, is not entirely surprising.
Now, over the past 24 hours, have come the scratches. We’re up to 5 since the Derby field was drawn on Monday. That's believed to be the most since the 1930s.
Two horses, Skinner and Practical Move, both shipping from California, developed fevers. Another, Continuar, just didn’t look ready to run, according to his trainer. And Joseph was given no choice by the state racing commission and Churchill.
On Saturday morning, Kentucky Derby morning line favorite Forte was scratched from the race after an examination by state veterinarian Nick Smith.
Owner Mike Repole described himself as "shocked, sad and devastated," after the vet told him that the 2-year-old champion colt "seemed off a tick."
Cara Sabin, WDRB’s Digital Director, came into the office on Thursday after Kentucky stewards sidelined Joseph and said, "We haven’t had a normal Derby since John Asher died."
She’s not wrong.
One of the beneficiaries of this year’s scratches, trainer Dale Romans, a Louisville native, said he’s sorry for the misfortune of others, but he’s thrilled to be dreaming of the Derby again. He has Cyclone Mischief, by the regal sire Into Mischief. He’ll send him forward and see what happens.
"He’s going to be a live longshot," Romans said Oaks morning outside his barn. Eric Reed, whose Rich Strike drew into the field at the last minute a year ago then won the whole thing, stopped by to tell Romans he hopes he can do the same thing.
"But I’m not the last in now!" Romans said, smiling.
What would it mean to Romans to win the race?
"It would be like a boy who grew up dreaming to be an astronaut jumping out of a spaceship on the moon," Romans said.
If Romans were to win, the parties at the barns and around Louisville might get out of hand.
But, if Kentucky Derby 149 insists on sticking in our memory, we should at least be ready for it.
Copyright 2023 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.