A Seat in the Bleachers: A chaotic Kentucky Derby week precedes what can be a chaotic race

Tapit Trice works out at Churchill Downs for Saturday's Kentucky Derby. (Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

Tapit Trice works out at Churchill Downs for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. (Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

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LOUISVILLE — With apologies to Agatha Christie, the title of this whorunnit is “And Then There Were 19.”

I think.

Be assured that I spent more time handicapping the 149th Kentucky Derby than I did re-assembling a timeline of the chaos at Churchill Downs over the past week and a half.

But it was close.

With 20 horses bursting out of the starting gate and jostling for advantageous position, there’s always an element of chaos at the beginning of the race itself, but this is ridiculous.

“The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” on Saturday follows “The Most Exasperating Two Days in Racing,” as three Derby horses scratched on Thursday and another one scratched on Friday morning. At that point, the Derby was out of also-eligible reinforcements and the field was reduced to 19 horses, as I write this on Friday afternoon. If anything else happens after this, you’re on your own.

Somehow, these developments didn’t have severe impact on my top four picks, but did cast another harsh, unwanted alternate spotlight on the sport of Thoroughbred racing in general and the Derby itself, especially since the central character, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., was forced not only to scratch his Derby horse, Lord Miles, but was also barred from the grounds.

In a whirlwind of Derby news, those punishments were announced a half-hour apart on Thursday, first the scratch, as directed by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the regulatory body for the state, and then the Joseph ban, as ordered by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI).

The Florida-based Joseph, who is a mainstay at Gulfstream Park, scratched every horse he had entered at Churchill this weekend, with the Lord Miles removal opening the door for Mandarin Hero to join the Derby field off the also-eligible list.

But let’s go back to the first Kentucky Domino.

Five horses have died as a result of activity related to racing at Churchill since two days before the spring meet opened on Saturday, April 29. That’s an eye-popping red-alert number in such a short period of time.

Wild On Ice, the New Mexico-based Sunland Park Derby winner who was going to be a big long shot for the Kentucky Derby, broke his leg during early-morning training on April 27, was vanned off and later euthanized.

Last Saturday, on opening night, a horse flipped over before a race and was scratched, then flipped two more times as he was being unsaddled and later was diagnosed at the equine hospital with a broken neck and was euthanized.

On Tuesday, the filly Take Charge Briana, who broke her maiden at Saratoga Race Course on closing weekend of the meet last summer, suffered a musculoskeletal injury in the stretch during a race and was vanned off, then euthanized.

Enter Joseph.

His racing stock accounted for two of the five deaths, but otherwise were in their own separate category, since Parents Pride and Chasing Artie collapsed suddenly and didn’t appear to have suffered musculoskeletal injuries. Red flags don’t get redder. The vast majority of equine racing deaths are a byproduct of breakdowns.

Four days after the start of the meet and three days before what has become the signature event of the racing world in North America, Churchill issued a statement on Wednesday acknowledging the deaths and promising to uphold its responsibility to keep the sport as safe as possible.

Enter Thursday.

My timeline shows news of the Practical Move scratch (spiked a fever) at 1:32 p.m., which allowed also-eligible Cyclone Mischief to draw into the field.

All of the Joseph scratches, including Lord Miles, leading to Mandarin Hero’s addition to the field, came around 4:30, followed by the Joseph suspension news a half-hour later. Bringing up the rear was one of the Japanese horses, Continuar, who scratched at 9:01 for what his trainer said was his horse’s failure to “reach the peak fitness required to take on a race as tough as the Kentucky Derby” since arriving last month.

That allowed the No. 23 horse, King Russell, to get in, and when Skinner scratched on Friday, nobody got in, because there was nobody left.

“I kind of thought we’d get in the whole time,” King Russell’s trainer Ron Moquett said. “I was under the impression we would be and should be in the Derby. I schooled him yesterday [Thursday] as if he was in the race, but at the time I was walking to the paddock, it was still a full field.”

“The entire look of the race really changed yesterday [Thursday],” trainer Dale Romans said on Friday morning after watching Cyclone Mischief gallop on the main track.

Trainer Keith Desormeax is relying on the prospect that “the Red Sea opens” to give his horse, Confidence Game, a shot to win.

Mandarin Hero’s trainer had canceled a flight from Japan to Louisville, then had to scramble to find another one. At least his jockey, Kazushi Kimura, was already in North America, but with a full slate of mounts at Woodbine in Toronto on Friday, he wasn’t scheduled to arrive in Louisville until midnight Friday.

Utter chaos.

Just for good measure, a ceiling tile in the middle of the crowded Churchill Downs pressbox fell 20 feet to the floor on Friday afternoon and somehow didn’t hit anybody in the head. Get it together, ceiling tile.

This much is clear: When it comes to what is not only the publicly traded corporation CDI’s most precious commodity, but its lifeblood, you don’t mess with the Kentucky Derby and its image.

Bob Baffert found out the hard way, when he drew a Churchill Downs suspension spanning the 2022 and 2023 Derbies after Medina Spirit tested positive for a tiny amount of a regulated drug a week after finishing first in the 2021 Derby. Medina Spirit was disqualified from the win over nine months later.

Saffie Joseph, whose horses’ troubling deaths could remain a mystery even after necropsies are performed, is finding out the hard way.


I found out the easy way that accounting for all the scratches after having already picked my superfecta wouldn’t be any kind of chore.

That’s mostly because Skinner and Mandarin Hero seemed pretty much interchangeable, based on their performance in the Santa Anita Derby in a blanket finish won by Practical Move (who is scratched, remember?).

My original superfecta was Blue Grass winner Tapit Trice on top, followed by Skinner, Forte and Rocket Can. Let’s simply swap Mandarin Hero for Skinner in the second spot. Easy game.

The knock against Tapit Trice is that he’s a big freight train who needs to be clear to maintain his momentum, but I’m betting he can do that and close into whatever pace meltdown happens. Adding front-runner Cyclone Mischief to the mix by virtue of the Practical Move scratch only increases the possibility that there will be an honest pace for the set–up. Like Tapit Trice, Mandarin Hero should benefit from that.

Forte is tough as nails, and I like him for the same reason that I like the top two, but Tapit Trice looks like he’s continuing to progress more at this point than Forte is. If Forte has reached his ceiling, Tapit Trice could be the one who picks up the pieces.

(Shut up, ceiling tile)

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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