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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 7, 2023 – America loves spectacles, and what could be more spectacular as a cultural event than the Kentucky Derby, renewed for the 149th time yesterday.

The Derby Is the sport’s equivalent of the Indianapolis 500, or the Super Bowl, or a World Series-Game 7 played with horses and by, pound for pound, the world’s fittest athletes.

Every year the Kentucky Derby is an emotional tour de force, no more so than this year’s Bittersweet Derby, when event week went from tragedy to triumph then back to tragedy again.

The fate of this Derby which will live in infamy was cast when a national television audience learned that two horses that broke down in undercard races were humanely destroyed.

For those who kept score at home, or at Derby watch parties, or in the offices of animal rights activist groups, the number of Derby Week equine fatalities numbered seven by day’s end.

Notwithstanding the fact the 20-horse Kentucky Derby was reduced to 18 for various, sundry health concerns, including the declaration of the Derby favorite, Forte, at the 11th hour out of an abundance of caution.

In the morning when outlooks are brightest, the day held much promise for America’s Race providing a few universally shared moments–of a horse that saved a boy’s life, an owner-trainer carrying a flag for family and country, or how a possible international victory that might cause “a tsunami” of joy.

Instead, it was NBC’s Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss acknowledging the fateful mishaps, but also correctly imparting that safety is improving, a sentiment not widely shared in the sports world.

After showing video highlights of two NBA semifinal games, SportsCenter’s Derby recap led with the seven equine deaths before the heroic Mage and Javier Castellano were ever acknowledged.

Sunday morning’s AP wire story penned by veteran racing reporter Beth Harris began “Two more horses died in the hours before Mage crossed the finish line first…”

Once again a Triple Crown chase was marred by a tragic event; the breakdown of Derby-winning Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, later euthanized when heroic attempts to save him failed, or the filly Eight Belles who broke while pulling up after her Derby placing to Big Brown in 2008.

And so once again the sport’s practitioners and followers are left to defend the game when accidents like these occur. The public doesn’t understand, or accept, that equines are prone to injury as would any athlete.

It is an inescapable fact that euthanasia is the only course of action for irreparable injury to horses. Equines are weight-bearing animals, and that severely impairs the recuperation process.

Horses do not have the words, but they have bodies, and those bodies speak to caretakers who, in the course of making a living, dedicate their lives to horses in their care, animals who would not exist except for the sport they make possible.

Mage and Castellano got their 15 minutes yesterday, a horse as bold and talented as he was inexperienced, winning the Derby in only his fourth lifetime start and giving a Hall of Fame rider whose 5,647 victories did not include this elusive classic.

Castellano, a native of Valenzuela, got “the cherry on his cake.” as did the generational training tandem of Gustavo Delgado Sr. and Jr. who made the best of their South American horsemanship, a discipline that values distance over speed. Mage is the embodiment of both.

For an 18-horse assemblage, the race was relatively clean with no major obstacles for the major horses to overcome, gate issues notwithstanding. The early pace was hot, frying all but the runnerup, Two Phil’s, who arguably might have been best as the race was run.

Jareth Loveberry, riding in his first Derby, negotiated a perfect trip, maintaining the good position he put himself in but was excitedly anxious to drive his mount further forward after gaining a rather handy lead at head-stretch.

Had Loveberry waited a tad longer, his one length defeat might have resulted in a narrow victory, as ‘Phil’ dug in tenaciously despite being passed. But that’s picking at nits, as did others who posited that show finisher Angel of Empire should have completed the exacta. The Preakness could clarify those positions.

As for the telecast, there was just enough fashion, just enough celebrity, and coverage of the tragic events without being heavy-handed. Anyone who loves this game already had pits in their stomach, knowing that they will be asked to defend their passion for at least the next five weeks.

But in a Derby-149 time capsule that will include references to betting records smashed in many wagering categories, including just shy of $189-million on the race itself, sadly it must also contain reflections on a universally shared celebration that was not meant to be.

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9 Responses

  1. John,
    Add me to the list of people who were elated to see a Hall of Famer Jock finally get a real chance to win the race late in his career. I try not to commit to the Derby horse until an hour before post time due to the usual reasons such as track biases, weather conditions etc.
    The exception I made this year was Mage, which was 25% handicapping, and 75% heartcapping. What JJ had to endure and come out of is pure inspiration. In this game one generally never wins betting with your heart. Thanks Javier for the many winners you have given me thru the years, especially Derby #149.

  2. Mark, thanks for this. You conveyed more about what horses and the sport mean to animal lovers. Further, there are two cliches to remember when betting on horses: There are 1001 ways to lose a horse race and you can never be wrong when you pick and bet on a winner for any reason. Lastly, there may be something to the comment spoken all week from various horsemen, that some Derby winners are pre-ordained. So who knows? In racing-speak, you just might have caught a flyer from the first jump out of the gate…

  3. Nobody ever questioned Castellano s ability. Hall of Fame jockey, Eclipse winner with more big time wins and pursues than many active
    Jockeys put together. The other day, once again some television talent called him Maybe the Best Jockey Ever on the Lead on Grass after of course he won on such post to finish ride on a horse with almost double digit odds. Which makes me ask when was the last time that I saw him on top of a favorite? My Kentucky Derby pick came in third after being last, or close to it for too long and then trying too late to come off the pace on the outside. Chasing fast fractions makes lots of jockeys hesitate what to do when and even if most trainers- jockeys combos were ” happy” about their horses race I’m Not convinced at all that it was true about number 14’s connections. But this is about a respected veteran jockey who still, after having proven, over and over again, in the 2011- 15 yrs that he was among the few elite jockeys, he gets ” no respect” as if he was done like some other ” has bens” who just had a good year or two. If #14 gets second I would get the gimmicks but, in this race, the better jock, the better drive, intuition, and experienced man on the saddle won. Congrats, Senor Castellano’ and I hope that at Belmont and Saratoga you will get a few more $ rides and less longshots. What else does this athlete have to prove to any trainer and bettor?

    1. Oh yeah, before 2010 he had only won some 20-plus Graded Stakes!!! He is 45 yrs old, not a relic. Sincerely wish him and his horse racing DNA family the best.

    1. That whole outfit from the part owner Ramiro Restrepo, to the Delgados, to Javier (Calvin Borel aside), are just extremely easy people to root and be happy for. And all of them are fantastic horsemen.

  4. Excellent writeup. In other news, did you catch Joe Drape’s article in yesterday’s Times re: Forte and the Hopeful post-race test?

  5. It’s posted here in the news section, Doc.

    While information is scarce at the moment, thinking a pain reliever coupled with an anti-inflammatory properties sounds a lot like a Bute overage to me. We’ll see what comes out of today’s meeting with the stewards. The hits just keep coming…

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