The Sport Of Kings? Not Lately

The six-figure crowds filled with celebrities, revelers and degenerate gamblers were back.   For the 149th time at the venerable and recently renovated Churchill Downs in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby was held.  Now virtually a prime time event (it went off just before 7 PM ET), the mint juleps that sold all day were kicked in and still flowing as the crowd cheered a surprising and inspiring win for both human and animal, as NJ Advance Media’s Kevin Manahan reported:

Mage was the upset winner in the year’s opening Triple Crown race at Churchill Downs amid subdued excitement.

With a charge at the top of the stretch, Mage — with only three starts before the Derby — won a duel with Two Phil’s. Mage had only one victory in three previous races before covering 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.57 under jockey Javier Castellano. He and trainer Gustavo Delgado are from Venezuela.

Castellano — who has more than 5,000 career wins while riding in more than 31,000 races — won the Derby on his 16th try.

“I always tried hard and don the right thing,” Castellano said. “I finally get there. I’m so blessed. Mage is a little horse with a big heart.”

But this Hollywood ending, for an event celebrating the golden anniversary of the kickoff to all-time great Secretariat’s historic sub-two-minute Run for the Roses, was merely a coda to a far more sobering week of events, as Manahan also reported.  Seven hotse deaths and five scratches preceded this race:

The deaths dealt serious blows to a sport already reeling from a series of doping suspensions and breakdowns. Forte, the early 3-1 favorite, was the fifth scratch in the run-up to the $3 million race for 3-year-olds. His absence reduced the field to 18 horses for the 1 1/4-mile race.

Chloe’s Dream, a 3-year-old gelding, and Freezing Point, a 3-year-old colt, were injured in their undercard races and were euthanized.

And as Edward Sutelan of The Sporting News had earlier reported, accompanying those tragedies and others were a whole lot of unanswered questions:

Four of the horse deaths’ causes have been made public. Wild on Ice and Take Charge Briana were both injured on the track and were euthanized. Code of Kings broke his neck in a saddling paddock and euthanized on April 29. Chloe’s Dream was taken off the track in an ambulance after a leg injury on Saturday and later euthanized, and Freezing Point’s death was announced shortly after he pulled up injured during the Pat Day Mile.

Saturday’s death of Chloe’s Dream occurred after the horse took an awkward step on the first turn of the day’s second race. That led to even more speculation about the track conditions at Churchill Downs. 

But what has advanced the investigation is the most recent deaths, those of Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, where the cause of death was not immediately known.

In a statement released Wednesday, Churchill Downs said it will be working with regulators to investigate the deaths of the horses. The statement was released when the only reported deaths were those of Wild on Ice, Take Charge Briana, Parents Pride and Chasing Artie. It said in the release that while the series of deaths was “highly unusual, it is completely unacceptable.”

“We take this very seriously and acknowledge that these troubling incidents are alarming and must be addressed,” Churchill Downs said in the statement. “We feel a tremendous responsibility to our fans, the participants in our sport and the entire industry to be a leader in safety and continue to make significant investments to eliminate risk to our athletes.”

And as CBS’s Isabel Gonzalez had reported earlier this week, scandal wasn’t just relegated to four-legged participants.  Indeed, Delgado’s window of opportunity may very well have been opened by this one:

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is missing his second consecutive Kentucky Derby as he is still serving a two-year suspension issued by Churchill Downs because of what happened with Medina Spirit in 2021. Baffert has tried to fight the suspension in court, but his efforts have been unsuccessful.

“I’ve just moved on,” the 70-year-old Hall of Fame trainer told The Associated Press recently without elaborating.

Baffert’s horse Medina Spirit was the winner of the 147th Kentucky Derby in 2021. However, Medina Spirit was later disqualified for testing positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory steroid. That substance is legal in Kentucky, but the rules state it cannot be used on the day of the race. The following month, Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from the track for two years.

Medina Spirit died unexpectedly on Dec. 6, 2021 after a workout in Santa Anita Park in California. In a statement shortly after his death, Baffert said it was because of a heart attack — which the necropsy said was likely what happened. There was only omeprazole and Lasix in his system, which were not suspicious as they were listed in the attending veterinarian’s report.  

For as beautiful as the attendees and as majestic as are these nearly century-and-a-half-old traditions on display yesterday, the mood and the priorities surrounding the sport are far uglier.  And, of course, the underlying reasons for this ugliness is all about money and relevance.

Horse racing, like baseball, has seen far better and more relevant days.  Once newspapers dedicated multiple pages to handicappers selecting race cards both locally and at nationally prominent tracks.  Broadcast networks regularly covered not only the Triple Crown but also many winter and spring races leading up to them.  Numerous high stakes summer races at historic travel destinations like Saratoga and Del Mar.  A lot of celebrity-studded events at venues like Hollywood Park.

Today, virtually none of these ancillary events warrant significant attention and, if covered at all, are relegated to secondary cable or streaming channels.   The audience that watch them is increasingly older and less advertiser-desirable.  The proliferation of online sites that offer wagering on team sports and daily fantasy make the siren’s call to gamblers of a race card far less timely and necessary.  Many tracks don’t race at all on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.  The crowds that show up in person are far smaller.  Track handles even at major tracks are diminished greatly from the glory days of Secretariat and company.  And Hollywood Park, like Secretariat, is a memory (it’s now the site of SoFi Stadium).

And, apparently, those that have been most successful from it are intent on accelerating its corruption, which except on days like this are largely ignored by most sports fans, certainly those under 60.

A sport potentially seeking its last gasps of relevance shouldn’t have a day like this overwhelmed by the kind of news we saw prior to Mage’s gallop to victory.  One can only hope the investigators find something of relevance before May 20th’s Preakness.  Perhaps Mage might win and make June’s Belmont Stakes something more meaningful.

Roses are the traditional garland of choice for Derby-winning horses.  They are also appropriate for coffins.

We shouldn’t have needed at least eight such arrangements in Louisville this week.






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