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Caution at Kentucky Derby showed we’re no longer in horse racing’s old days

Caution at Kentucky Derby showed we’re no longer in horse racing's old days

LOUISVILLE — When the chief veterinarian from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission visited Barn 39 at Churchill Downs Saturday morning, he did so in the milieu of May 2023. The old days had gone. The nation’s sensibilities about animals had changed by at least somewhat. A sport with 1.2 horse deaths per 100,000 entries in 2022, down by almost half since 2009 while still exceeding that of other lands, reeled in the bizarre nightmare of a venerable track on the biggest stage, with five horses dying in the previous nine days ahead of two more fallen later Saturday.

The scratching of Kentucky Derby favorite Forte, about 10 hours before post time, owed to a bruised right foot, the kind of ailment shy of injury which very well might not have forestalled a run 50, 25, 10 or even five years ago. It happened after Forte had galloped and jogged under observation. It left some ticklish scenes.

It left the veterinarian, Dr. Nicholas Smith, declining comment to Louisville TV station and website WDRB as they walked, a baffling failure of communication given all the accepted arguments for caution. It left Mike Repole, a co-owner of Forte, to relay in various interviews that Smith had said in discussions that Forte had seemed “a tick off.”

By Sunday morning, it left a telltale rearrangement of a sentence from mega-trainer Todd Pletcher, spoken while Forte stuck his gorgeous head out of his stall down the way just before an angry thunderstorm kicked in.

“There are different levels of disappointment,” he said, “and when you have to scratch the — or have the Derby favorite scratched …

Forte, the morning-line favorite, scratched hours before Kentucky Derby

He hadn’t scratched, he’d gotten scratched, with Forte the fifth horse since midday Thursday to be out — three of those scratched and two getting scratched. That’s counting Lord Miles, who exited Thursday late afternoon with Churchill Downs’s indefinite suspension of his trainer, Saffie Joseph Jr., after two of Joseph’s horses died.

So the conclusion of Pletcher’s sentence went: “ … it’s about the highest level of disappointment you can have. But, keeping in mind that it’s a tough business, tough decisions have to be made, and a lot of disappointments even when you’re doing well. We had a good day, we won a Grade I million-dollar race (before the Derby) and we leave the day disappointed.”

Soon, Pletcher would present an emblem of this sport at this moment when he said, “I think that (Forte) would have performed well yesterday, so,” — he paused — “but, unfortunately that wasn’t an option.”

And as the eight-minute interview with reporters wound down, the Daily Racing Form double-checked: Had Forte missed any work through Derby week?

“He never missed a day,” Pletcher said. “He trained every day, yeah.”

In some sense, the rearranging of priorities about horse racing has borne a slight parallel to the rearranging of those about American football. When Chuck Hughes of the 1971 Detroit Lions became the only NFL player to die on the field, with 1:02 left in a game against Chicago, the game carried on. When Damar Hamlin of the 2022 Buffalo Bills suffered cardiac arrest in the first quarter a game at Cincinnati, the game ended and never resumed.

“Yeah, I mean, look they’re athletes,” Pletcher said of the horses, “and any athletes who are competing and training hard are gonna have some minor issues — humans, horses, whatever. Discerning what’s potentially a problematic issue versus stiffness is sometimes hard to differentiate.”

He said, “I understand what the veterinarians were seeing (with Forte), and I also understand the level of scrutiny that everyone’s under. Everyone in the industry wants to make racing as safe as possible, and even in situations like that where right now everyone is doing everything they can to make sure that the horses are going out there in the safest possible condition, we still had two fatal breakdowns yesterday. It’s something as a trainer that keeps you up at night. So what the solution to that is, I don’t know, I think we’re all trying to improve in that area, but unfortunately a risk is taken every time you go out there.”

In the air beyond the barns, different and familiar statements emerged. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for one, called for closure of the track amid its 14-race card on Saturday, given the death in the second race of Chloe’s Dream from a right knee fracture, and even before Freezing Point’s death in the eighth race from a left front biaxial sesamoid fracture. PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo referred to Churchill Downs as “a killing field” and said, “They should play ‘Taps’ at the Derby instead of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’”

Churchill Downs chimed in at 9:45 p.m., stating: “It is with the utmost sadness that we report these tragic fatal injuries.” It echoed calls for a uniform body to lead the sport, calls it often has led, when it stated, “The equine fatalities leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby are a sobering reminder of the urgent need to mobilize our industry in order to explore every avenue possible and effectively minimize any avoidable risk in the sport.” It stated, “While each incident has been unique, it is important to note that there has been no discernible pattern detected in the injuries sustained. Our track surfaces are closely monitored by industry experts to ensure their integrity. Each horse that participates in racing at Churchill Downs must undergo multiple, comprehensive veterinarian exams and observations to ensure their fitness to race.”

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), the nascent organization born from a congressional act seeking a national overseer for a sport long lacking one, said, “Churchill Downs has been cooperating with HISA since its inception and is in full compliance with our rules and processes.”

It became that rare Kentucky Derby with a winners’ news conference that veered toward the somber, and the occasional interruptions of the joy met with zero resentment from Ramiro Restrepo, part of the populous ownership group of Derby winner Mage.

Mage wins Kentucky Derby after run-up rife with scratches and tragedy

“It’s a very difficult subject,” he said, “especially in the climate of 2023. We are very sensitive to these unfortunate instances. All I can say is, we do our best to take care of our horses. We treat them better than we treat our children. And we had full confidence in the soundness of our horse … As far as the tragedies that occurred, it’s a very difficult subject to touch upon. I’m sure there’s going to be some investigations done as to the reasons behind that, and hopefully that provides a few more answers.”

As some wondered about the Churchill Downs track, especially coming four years after the Santa Anita in California suffered a ghastly spate of deaths across months, the 45-year-old jockey Javier Castellano saw no clues there.

“I don’t know, the horses unfortunately, they go through a tough time, especially this weekend,” he said. “But nothing to do with the track. I think the track is in great condition. I won a Grade I race early in the grass, in the turf. It’s a great condition, nice, very smooth … It’s been pretty fair, good, fresh track. It’s in great, great condition.”

Castellano, a Hall of Fame jockey, had just improved his Kentucky Derby record from 0-for-15 to 1-for-16, and he had done it while aboard the horse who happened to chase Forte in the Florida Derby on April 1, before Forte refused to capitulate.

Of all the winners after the scratch of Forte …

“Bittersweet,” said Pletcher, who hugged Mage trainer Gustavo Delgado after his win. “You know, look, it didn’t matter who won, we were going to be disappointed we didn’t get to start Forte. The fact that Mage won, you know, makes you think more of a what-if, and I guess on the bright side everybody that was critical of (Forte’s) Florida Derby can put that to bed.”

While a track and sport set to look back across the recent days for answers, Pletcher and his giant stable also had to look ahead, including toward the Preakness, set for May 20. “He (Forte) looked good this morning,” Pletcher said. “He trained here this week. And we’re happy with him. Friday or Saturday we’ll give him a breeze and if we like the like the breeze, (then) plan on going to Pimlico.”

That old formality, too, rings differently in May 2023.

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