LOUISVILLE — They began and finished the troubled 149th Kentucky Derby on Saturday evening before 150,335 revelers, all of which must have come as relief after a run-up rife with tragedy and scratches. Mage, at 15-1 odds, caught Two Phil’s in the stretch beneath various kinds of clouds and won by a length in a bunched finish, all of which had to come as manna to his trainer, Gustavo Delgado; his committee of owners; and his jockey, Javier Castellano.
So for an evening spell after seven horse deaths in 10 days and five scratches in three, with two of the deaths and one of the scratches happening earlier Saturday, some welcome mirth sprinkled itself around. Some of it traveled clear to Venezuela, the land of storybook 1971 Derby champion Cañonero II and the native land of Delgado (who snared his first Derby win in his third try after dreaming for decades of emulating Juan Arias, Cañonero II’s trainer) and Castellano, who snared his first Derby win on his 16th try after winning the Preakness twice (2006, 2017) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic once (2004).
“I haven’t words,” Delgado said from the end of the interview dais, wearing a stylish white jacket that flattered his gray hair as he apologized for his English.
“Sometimes you feel embarrassed a little bit,” Castellano said, “when you try so many times and you don’t see the result, and sometimes you go down a little bit. But I didn’t give up. When I was in the jockey room and NBC put ‘0 for 15 Javier Castellano,’ at that moment it gives me so much inspiration myself, and this is going to be the year.”
“Our horse, the only thing I can speak about him, he was completely thriving on this course [in training],” said Ramiro Restrepo, a Miamian and part of a voluminous ownership group that includes participants in the micro-owner trend.
The outcome, in 2 minutes 1.57 seconds after fast early fractions, threw some glory also upon the Florida Derby, where Mage made a keen charge and forced a fend-off from Forte, the initial Derby favorite who was scratched Saturday morning in the first jolt of the day. It was only the fourth race for Mage, all in 2023, and it made him the first horse since Justify in 2018 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old and only the second since Apollo in 1882. It also one-upped Mage’s sire, Good Magic, who ran second in the 2018 Derby to the eventual Triple Crown champion.
Two Phil’s, a 9-1 shot who spent the race in or around the lead, held on to his place by half a length over slightly belated charger Angel of Empire, the Arkansas Derby winner who nabbed third at 4-1 as something of a hip pick after Forte exited. Three lengths further back went Disarm, a 27-1 shot. The trainees of Todd Pletcher, who suffered the morning crusher of Forte’s exit, ran seventh (Tapit Trice, the eventual favorite at 9-2) and 14th (Kingsbarns). Derma Sotogake, the Japanese winner of the UAE Derby, ran sixth to leave those who prepped abroad in the race before the Derby at 0 for 19 in hitting the board.
Of all the two minutes run annually since 1875, these two might have come the closest to afterthought after the preceding days and the 10 hours full of shocks leading up to the traditional parade to the post.
The jolts of Saturday began when Forte, the early favorite, scratched around 9 a.m., the groaning peak of the five-horse spate of exits that began Thursday. The decision came at the behest of state veterinarians after Forte had a gallop, a bath and a few jogs and after vets conversed with Pletcher and co-owner Mike Repole. It left the humans devastated given their horse had won six of seven and five in a row, and it reflected both concerns about a three-day-old bruise on Forte’s right foot and the caution enveloping the sport in a country with changing mores.
Then the day’s races began, and two contestants died after pulling up prematurely: Chloe’s Dream, a 3-year-old gelding in the second race, and Freezing Point, a 3-year-old colt in the eighth. Both horses ran beneath Corey Lanerie, 19 times the leading jockey in Churchill Downs meets, and left in ambulances before they were euthanized.
They lengthened an abnormal rash of deaths with diverging and baffling causes at a track undergoing major renovations in a sport that has seen the number of deaths dip steadily from 2 per 1,000 starts in 2009 to 1.25 per 1,000 in 2022, according to the Equine Injury Database. That 1.25 represented the lowest mark in the 14 years of the study.
The grim sequence began April 27, when Derby hopeful Wild On Ice was euthanized after suffering a fractured left hind leg near the end of a workout. It persisted through two deaths April 29: 4-year-old mare Parents Pride after pulling up in the eighth race and, as reported by the Daily Racing Form, 3-year-old gelding Code of Kings before the 10th race after flipping in the paddock and breaking his neck. It continued through two Tuesday, 3-year-old filly Take Charge Briana after suffering injury in the fifth race on the turf course and 5-year-old gelding Chasing Artie following a collapse after finishing the eighth race in poor form but without any apparent musculoskeletal injury.
As the state-mandated necropsies set to begin at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory, the list of Derby scratches grew from Thursday on.
Practical Move, the Santa Anita Derby winner, scratched midday Thursday, his handlers citing an elevated temperature. Lord Miles, the Wood Memorial upset winner, followed that afternoon as a byproduct of the indefinite suspension of trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who had wept at his barn that morning as he tried to process the deaths of Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, neither of whom suffered apparent injury. Churchill Downs said it had taken the action of suspending Joseph and requesting the scratching of his horses “until details are analyzed and understood,” and its seriousness echoed June 2021 and the two-year suspension of star trainer Bob Baffert for a doping violation involving initial Derby winner Medina Spirit.
Continuar followed Thursday night, with trainer Yoshito Yahagi noting the colt’s suboptimal fitness. Skinner, who had run a close third in the Santa Anita Derby, followed Friday morning, with trainer John Shirreffs citing an elevated temperature.
Once Forte followed, and three alternates had entered the field, 18 horses started, and Castellano said, “I took my time,” and, “We had a plan.” He said, “I know it’s going to be a lot of speed.” It was a lot of speed — 45 3/5 seconds at the half-mile, while Mage and Castellano waited. “As he started sliding through horses,” Restrepo said, “it was reminiscent of a ride that Jerry Bailey had on Sea Hero [in 1993], when I was in high school.”
Then the high school type of dreams began coming truer and truer as Mage surged until Restrepo said, “It was just magic, man,” and Gustavo Delgado Jr. spoke for his father and said, “I think my dad, with the success of Cañonero II, as you know, Venezuela connections that won the Derby, he grew up in a generation when everybody was talking about it. He always felt that he could accomplish that.”
He would say to young Gustavo, “One day, we should go to the States and try to win those races,” then he became an accomplished trainer who came to the States eight years ago and won one of those races for the kind of multinational group that epitomizes this grand bridge of sports. “Four different groups from four different backgrounds,” Restrepo described the ownership, “all different age ranges, nationalities. I mean, it’s one heck of a melting pot.”
All those people went into the Louisville night and a fitting deluge of rain, and all those people went giddily. It seemed good that someone could.