By T. D. Thornton
Next week at this time, we'll know if the sport is on the cusp of another Triple Crown sweep. Of all the potential excuses for GI Kentucky Derby winner Mage (Good Magic) not emerging victorious from the GI Preakness S., intense media pressure is unlikely to be one of them.
You could make the argument that the diminutive, white-blazed chestnut with the endearing overbite has enjoyed one of the least-scrutinized post-Derby weeks of any winner in recent history. That's not so much because the spotlight on his accomplishment has dimmed. It has to do with overlapping waves of chaos commandeering the game like a searing mint julep hangover that won't go away.
Colleague Bill Finley wrote in this space last week about the seven horse deaths at Churchill Downs that overshadowed Mage's Derby score. That was followed a few days later by proponents and opponents of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) sparring in federal court, where the highlighting of racing's recent, grim headlines to prove points underscored a nasty turn in a two-year-old lawsuit that has no end in sight.
Additionally, Mage was eclipsed in the news by the colt who was favored to beat him, but had to scratch on the morning of the Derby with a foot bruise. That would be the 2-year-old champ Forte (Violence), who on May 9 was revealed to have failed a drug test at Saratoga last September, with the public kept in the dark the entire eight months afterward until the scoop was leaked to the New York Times.
Two days later, on May 11, Forte was disqualified from the GI Hopeful S. on the basis of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication positive. The case is under appeal, with the only certainty being that it, too, is likely to linger in the courts for a long, long time.
The same day as word of Forte's DQ broke, the connections of last year's underdog Derby upsetter, Rich Strike (Keen Ice), also got dragged into the headlines for a cringe-worthy cameo. The issue had nothing to do with the colt's 0-for-6 record since winning the first leg of the 2022 Triple Crown.
Rather, trainer Eric Reed informed owner Rick Dawson (via text) that he was resigning after the two failed to come to an agreement over–Are you ready for this?–a proposed movie deal. Reed's version of events is that he stepped away after Dawson gave him an ultimatum to either drop the project or get fired. Dawson's take is that he was being kept out of the loop on negotiations and that “things were done behind my back.”
Will “Richie” still be destined for the big screen? Destined for prolonged litigation seems more like it.
And finally, even though it managed not to percolate to the top of the news cycle last week, trainer Bob Baffert and Churchill Downs, Inc., were still trading court filings in Baffert's federal civil rights lawsuit against the gaming company that controls the nation's most important horse race. Yes, Baffert's two-year banishment from the Derby has come and gone, but the lawyering is far from done and the legal fight grinds on.
Separately, we still don't know the outcome of the appeal of Medina Spirit's betamethasone DQ from the 2021 Derby, which is what sparked both Baffert's ruling-off and the lawsuit. That's because the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission still hasn't adjudicated the appeal, 743 days after the test sample was drawn.
Bottom line? All this attention being deflected away from Mage lets him coast into Baltimore further under the radar than most Derby winners. Theoretically, that's great for the colt. For the sport as a whole, it's embarrassing.
The last four Derbies have all been dysfunctional to some degree. An inexplicable 80-1 winner was 2022's oddity. The in-limbo drug DQ appeal of Medina Spirit still clouds the 2021 Derby. The 2020 pandemic necessitated that year's Derby be run in September instead of May. In 2019, it was the DQ of first-across-the-line Maximum Security for in-race interference, the only demotion of a Derby winner for an in-race foul, and it too sparked a failed federal lawsuit.
Mage's trainer, Gustavo Delgado, had a peripheral role in that controversial 2019 Derby. He saddled the 71-1 Bodexpress, who, just like Mage, set sail for Louisville after running second in the GI Florida Derby.
The difference was that Bodexpress went into the Kentucky Derby while still a maiden. Nevertheless, he showed grit by pressing the pace and holding a forward position against far more seasoned horses before tiring and then dramatically checking out of action in the far-turn scrum that resulted in Maximum Security's DQ.
Delgado, who had saddled multiple Classics-level stakes winners in his native Venezuela prior to trying his luck with a stable in America in 2014, wheeled Bodexpress right back two weeks later, giving him his first starter in the Preakness. The colt went off at 20-1, but dislodged jockey John Velazquez at the start and careened around the track riderless before being safely corralled.
Because of his antics, Bodexpress became a social media sensation and something of a fan favorite. After a five-month freshening, he broke his maiden in Florida and subsequently won two allowance races.
In 2020, Bodexpress scored at 11-1 odds in the GI Clark S. at Churchill to cap off his racing career, while giving Delgado his second Grade I winner in the United States. That turn of events signaled better Triple Crown karma might eventually be in Delgado's pipeline.
The trainer's son and assistant, Gustavo Delgado, Jr., told TDN's Katie Petrunyak on Friday that his father initially scoffed at the $290,000 purchase of Mage at EASMAY last spring.
“He didn't like him because he's got parrot mouth,” Delgado, Jr., said. “I remember he looked at me and said, 'The next time you are buying a horse, send me a video first and don't buy a parrot mouth.' But I told him, 'Trust me, this guy can run.'”
Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Mage fits the profile of a Derby winner who might not be fancied as the favorite in the Preakness, where he'll face a wave of fresh competition. But he's now uncorked big moves on the far turn in two straight Grade I races, and as a light-framed colt, his way of going doesn't seem to impose the type of pounding that would be detrimental to firing right back in two weeks.
On Saturday, we'll find out if Mage can spare the sport a little of his upbeat mojo. Right now the game could use a touch of his no-drama, all-business vibe.
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