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Mystik Dan's Narrow, Thrilling Kentucky Derby Win Ends a Perfect Week for Racing

LOUISVILLE , KY -- Perhaps this is how a sport takes its first small step out of a creeping darkness that has come to define -- and sometimes threaten -- its existence: With one horse alone in the fading yellow glow of a spring evening, nothing between him and victory in the Kentucky Derby but a football field's worth of corduroy loam, a local workaday jockey pumping his arms in rhythm with the animal beneath him, man and colt together staving off exhaustion. Asking. Urging. Begging. With two other horses shrinking the distance separating them from the leader with every stride, fighting each other, until the three are almost one, and a crowd the size of a small city making a sound like an airplane climbing into the pale blue sky. With the finish line arriving, the trio inseparable. And with the roar becoming a wondrous, unknowing gasp, an exhalation that is equal parts uncertainty and joy, a sound at the heart of an ancient game.

So it was on Saturday at Churchill Downs in the rare American horse race that truly matters, that Mystik Dan, a bay colt sent off at 18-1 odds, shot into the lead along the rail at the quarter pole, a move that 38-year-old veteran Kentucky jockey Brian Hernandez learned from watching three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel, and galloped into open space, tantalizingly close to the wire but painfully far away. Behind him, Sierra Leone, at 5-1 the second choice in the 20-horse field, and Forever Young, the latest Japan-based horse to try to win the Derby's roses, tried to run him down. As soon as they hit the line, as Sierra Leone edged past Forever Young, the PHOTO sign was illuminated on the infield tote boards and on hundreds of monitors around the mammoth racetrack.

And then... everyone waited. Mystik Dan's Churchill-based trainer, Kenny McPeek, who has won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a long and circuitous career, but never the Derby, was in his box near the finish. Chad Brown, Sierra Leone's four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, winner of nearly every significant race in American thoroughbred racing, was nearby in his. The typical Derby throng, this year 156,170 fans, waited in seats and boxes and concourses at the end of a long day.

Replays were shown on monitors. Mystik Dan looked like the winner. Then a slow-motion replay was shown. Maybe not. Very close to the line, Mystik Dan's head rose as Sierra Leone's fell. A bob, they say in racing. Was it enough?

"I didn't think I won, watching it live," said Brown after the race. "Then they showed the slo-mo, I thought maybe this could be a dead heat. Because I got a great (head) bob. I just wasn't in front. But it's tough to know which angles they're showing."

McPeek said, "I thought we won when we hit the wire. There was a monitor sitting right behind us. Somebody pointed it out. They slo-mo'd it to the wire. I thought it was pretty obvious we won."

Two minutes passed. Three minutes. On the backstretch, Hernandez pulled up Mystik Dan and asked his outrider. "The outrider said we think you won," said Hernandez. "But they haven't made it official yet."

Four minutes. There's nothing like this in racing, and few things like it anywhere in sports. Horses and riders have spent themselves. Owners and trainers have worked months for the Derby. Now the outcome is delayed. Bettors clutch tickets to their hearts; some will be cashed, others worthless. The day is over, but it's not over. It is a delay not at all like the 22 minutes after the end of the 2019 Derby, when an ominous sense of unsatisfying justice hung in the air before winner Maximum Security -- clearly the best horse that day -- was appropriately disqualified from first place, "taken down" in racing parlance, and plodding closer Country House declared a tepid, longshot winner. This was different. This was a delay worth living, an agony that makes the reward more meaningful.

Five minutes.

Finally. OFFICIAL replaced PHOTO on the boards and monitors. Another roar. Mystik Dan, a homebred owned and bred by an Arkansas group led by former small college football player Lance Gasaway and his wife, Sherilyn, had won the 150th Kentucky Derby by the margin of a nose over Sierra Leone. It was the closest Derby finish since 1996, when Grindstone ran down Cavonnier and also won by a nose, denying a first Derby win to an unknown, white-haired California trainer named Bob Baffert, who has since won the Derby six times and whose absence -- while in the third year of a Derby suspension levied by Churchill Downs -- from Saturday's race was conspicuous, but somehow less meaningful in the jetstream of such an enervating moment. It was the Derby's first three-horse photo finish since Jet Pilot, Phalanx and Faultless in 1947.

With Mystik Dan's victory, McPeek became the first trainer since Ben Jones in 1952 to win both the Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies, which McPeek won Friday with Thorpedo Anna, and the Derby. He had predicted the win in his Oaks press conference the day before, when asked if he would be returning to the winning chair a day later. "Count on it," McPeek said. After the Derby, he said, "For three weeks, I've felt like we were going to win both races. I can't tell you why. Both horses have been so easy to deal with. There's been no drama. And we had two really good horses."

A moment: One good horse race does not rescue a sport. Racing's wounds are deep and will not heal quickly. It was a year ago that the Derby unfolded as the first chapter in a months-long crisis that -- absent aggressive intervention and change -- had the potential to push the sport of racing closer to irrelevance and within range of extinction. Five thoroughbreds suffered catastrophic breakdowns and were euthanized in the 10 days leading to the Derby, and two more in races on the Derby undercard. Five horses were scratched from the body of the race, the most since 1936. Trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. was suspended because two of his horses were among the dead (he was back in the Derby this year) and Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was bigfooted by a state veterinarian, when the vet scratched Pletcher's likely favorite Forte on the morning of the Derby.

It was a lousy week and a lousy day, and while 15-1 shot Mage's victory and his connections' rollicking infield celebration brought a moment of joy and relief (as did the entire Derby field finishing safely), it couldn't undo what had come before it. The Derby shuffled offstage, diminished in its present, less reliable as an antidote to any and all issues in the sport. The rest of the year was no better: Two weeks after the Derby, the Preakness was differently fraught, but no less painfully. Three-year-old Havnameltdown suffered a gruesome breakdown approaching the homestretch in the Chick Lang Stakes and was euthanized on the track; a few hours later National Treasure won a thrilling Preakness. The catch: Both were trained by Baffert.

Two more horses died on the track on the day of the Belmont Stakes, bringing the Triple Crown Day tally to five. Across the 40 days of the glossy Saratoga summer meet, 13 horses died in racing or training, including beloved filly Maple Leaf Mel's horrific collapse just short of the finish line on a Saturday with more than 44,000 sun-soaked spectators watching aghast. The sport was reeling, society beginning to turn away.

Churchill Downs took steps. First, the track shut down its 2023 spring meet a month early, on June 2, and reopened in the fall. Horses competing in the Derby were subjected to rigorous daily attention by a team of veterinarians, charged with ensuring their soundness. They trained with biometric sensors designed to detect changes in gait that might indicate the beginnings of an injury. Upgraded surface maintenance equipment was put into use, a no-stone-unturned strategy to counter consistent findings that breakdown clusters are in some way connected to track surfaces. A PET scan unit was installed at the track.

And, the kicker. There were no catastrophic breakdowns during Derby week, or on Derby Day. Is that because of the measures Churchill took to improve horse safety? Or did the roulette wheel of random outcomes simply spare the track, the race and the sport this year, after punishing it a year ago? It's impossible to know in real time. And a clean week does not arrest years of unattended slippage and tragedy. But this is unequivocally true: Zero dead horses is better than seven dead horses. And the recovery has to begin somewhere.

It could do worse than to begin with Mystik Dan. With McPeek. With Gasaway. With Hernandez.

Mystik Dan was born in 2021 to Gasaway's mare, Ma'am, a blue-collar daughter of one-time Derby starter Colonel John, who won four times in 23 career starts, totaling $167,923, mostly in claiming and low-level allowance races, never in a stakes race. She did not scream broodmare, but Gasaway bred her to 2013 and 2014 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents for a meager $10,000 stallion fee, and, voila. Gasaway marveled at all of it. "I mean, who would have ever dreamed that a little filly, Ma'am, breed her for a $10,000 stud fee, and win the Kentucky Derby. It's just really surreal."

Mystik Dan, who was named for one of Gasaway's partners, Dan Hamby, and Hamby's father's work as a salesman for Mystik Tape, took an uncertain route to the Derby, via Arkansas. He was just fifth in January’s Smarty Jones, but won the February Southwest Stakes by eight lengths. A third in the March 30 Arkansas Derby earned him enough points to make the Derby starting gate. Hernandez had ridden him in all but the desultory Smarty Jones. "He just doesn't make mistakes," said McPeek. "I go to big races and use other jockeys and say, 'I miss Brian.'"

Hernandez is a rider's rider; his mounts have won $127 million in purses in 22 years, but he's never become famous. His Derby ride was a virtuoso performance. A week before the Derby, Mystik Dan drew the No. 3 post position in the 20-horse Derby field, which can be problematic. Hernandez turned it into an advantage and summoned his memory of his friend and Derby legend. Borel won the 2007 Derby with Street Sense, the 2009 Derby with Mine That Bird and the 2010 Derby with Super Saver, all with rail-skimming rides, true to his nickname of Calvin Bo-rail. When Hernandez drew the three hole, he watched those rides.

"Twenty years I've ridden here, I sat in the same corner as Calvin Borel. I got to watch him ride those Derbies. I said, 'You know what? We're going to roll the dice [and ride the rail].'" It worked perfectly. Hernandez kept Mystik Dan inside all the way around, saving ground and staying patient. "Nice and comfortable the whole way," Hernandez said. Turning for home, he slipped into a tiny hole inside Track Phantom and Joel Rosario. Half a minute later, he hit the wire, clear by the smallest unit of measurement in racing.

A year since its nadir, a sport rose from its knees to begin walking again.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.