By Bill Finley
In our insular world, the story Saturday evening was that Mage (Good Magic) won the 149th GI Kentucky Derby. There were some feel-good storylines, particularly the one about well-liked 45-year-old jockey Javier Castellano winning his first Derby. Handle set a record. Attendance was up from last year. Plenty of A-list celebrities were in attendance. As always, the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” could bring a tear to your eye.
To many in racing those were the stories, but only because there are not enough of us who are worried sick about this sport's future because of its problems with animal rights issues and the growing belief among the general public that the sport is cruel to the animal. Because seven horses died in the lead-up to the Derby, including two on Derby day itself, this was a horrible day for the sport. It was as bad as anything that happened at Santa Anita in 2019, and still another wake-up call that everything that can be done to protect these animals needs to be done.
On the Sunday morning that followed, very few Americans could have told you Mage is, who Castellano is, what the running time was. But just about everyone of them knew that seven horses died at Churchill Downs.
How could they not? The racing publications, the Thoroughbred Daily News among them, trod lightly when it came to reporting the news that Chloe's Dream (Honor Code) and Freezing Point (Frosted) suffered life-ending injuries on the Derby card. The mainstream media did not. The public was inundated with bad news.
Many of the stories were similar to the one that run in USA Today under the headline “Mage's magical Kentucky Derby win overshadowed by specter of death.” They all kind of went like this: “Seven horses have died at Churchill Downs and, oh, by the way, a horse named Mage won the Kentucky Derby.”
“Unfortunately, it is not the image that America is going to take away from the 149th Kentucky Derby,” writer Dan Wolken wrote in reference to the picture the sport likes to paint when it comes to the Derby, its pomp and circumstance, its majesty, the fancy hats, etc. “Instead, it is going to be the specter of animal death that hangs over this sport and the unwillingness of anyone in a position of authority in horse racing to either explain it or own it.”
Here's what Joe Drape in the New York Times had to say in his post-race coverage that had the headline “Mage Captures the Derby After an Agonizing Week at Churchill Downs.”
“The best thing you can say about the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby is that the 18 horses who made it to the starting gate on Saturday survived. That came as a relief after at least seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the past week, two of them on Saturday in races leading up to America's most famous race.
“By the time the horses edged into the starting gate for what is an annual Thoroughbred celebration on the first Saturday in May, all anyone who loves the sport was thinking–no, praying–was that these ethereal creatures and their riders get around the mile and a quarter race safely.
“Could you blame them?”
He didn't mention Mage until the 11th paragraph of his story.
I find myself disagreeing with Drape more often than not, but he wasn't wrong. It was very hard to enjoy watching the running of the race when you knew that the possibility, as slim as it might have been, existed that still one more horse would die.
The Wall Street Journal ran the story “Mage Wins the Kentucky Derby Amid String of Horse Deaths at Churchill Downs.” The lede paragraph read: “Mage won the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby on a day when an abnormal string of horse deaths continued earlier in the day, casting a long shadow over racing's marquee event.”
In a column he wrote titled “Stench of death overwhelms Kentucky Derby,” Associated Press writer Paul Newberry wrote “Horse racing needs to demonstrate once and for all that it truly cares about the athletes at the heart of its sport.”
I could go on. There are dozens more stories like that out there. But you get the point.
So on the one day when the public is actually paying attention to racing and the sport has an opportunity to showcase all that is right with it, it blows up in our face. We invited the public in, asked them to watch, learn and enjoy and what we wound up giving them was a nightmare that put racing in the worst possible light. Where does this end and when does the American public say “we've had enough?”
This all comes amid the sport heading in the right direction. The fatality numbers go down every year and some racetrack owners and regulators have put new protocols in place that have clearly worked. Del Mar and Santa Anita both have made great strides of late when it comes to safety. This new mentality was on display at Churchill. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ordered that all horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. be scratched after two horses he trained died of unknown causes. That probably wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. The racing commission vet also scratched Derby favorite Forte (Violence) over a bruised foot even though it appeared that trainer Todd Pletcher wanted to run the horse. That probably wouldn't have happened 10 years ago either.
But the awful fact remains that a lot of horses still die each year. Based on figures from The Jockey Club's Equine Injury Data Base, about 350 horses died in races alone last year. So this is what we have left to tell the public: “We don't kill as many horses as we used to.” That's never going to work.
The sobering part of this is that there are no magic bullets. Yes, we are doing better, but we're never going to see a day when race horses just don't die anymore. The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act is a step in the right direction and those who are standing in its way are doing a great disservice to the sport. But HISA is not a panacea.
We are left to soldier on, vow to do our very best to keep these horses safe and, well, keep our fingers crossed. Efforts to end the sport picked up a lot of momentum Saturday, and that's a very scary thing.