Horse deaths, bans, four scratches ... a Kentucky Derby week unlike any other

Kentucky Derby entrant Skinner works out at Churchill Downs Thursday, May 4
The colt Skinner, the fourth horse to be scratched from the Kentucky Derby this week, works out at Churchill Downs on Thursday. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

The moment horse racing fans look forward to with heightened anticipation is when the starting gates open for the running of the Kentucky Derby.

This year, the anticipation will be more a sense of relief, with the hope of nothing else negative happening in one of the wildest lead-up weeks to the 149th running of the world’s most famous race.

The canvas is littered with dead horses, a banned trainer and so many scratches that only 19 horses will start the race. That's a lot to digest ... and then there are the unfounded rumors.

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Even trainer Todd Pletcher had to address the speculation that race favorite Forte was going to scratch.

“He’s shown up and run well every start of his life,” Pletcher said Friday morning. “I would expect no different from him.”

The grim facts are five horses have died at Churchill Downs since the middle of last week. One trainer has been banned and four horses have been scratched.

“The flurry of scratches in the lead-up to the race certainly makes this year's Kentucky Derby one of the wackiest in recent memory in terms of who's in and who's out at the last minute,” racing historian Jon White said. “Rich Strike got into the race at the eleventh hour last year and then won it in the second-biggest upset in Derby history.


“Who would have ever thought that one year later, not one, not two, but three horses would get into the race from the also-eligible list? It just goes to prove yet again that when it comes to horse racing, it's usually a good idea to expect the unexpected."

The last time four horses were given the technical term of scratching was 2015, although only three horses were pulled from the race and a horse on the also-eligible list declined to race, making the number four. As for actual scratches, the last time there were this many was in 1936.

Santa Anita-based Practical Move scratched Thursday because of a fever and Japanese import Continuar pulled out because his trainer did not think the horse was fit enough. Lord Miles was also taken out Thursday when Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) stewards suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. after two of his horses died.

On Friday, a fourth horse exited when Skinner, who runs for John Shirreffs, also had an elevated temperature. The move reduced the number of California horses in the race to one, Reincarnate, who runs for Practical Move’s trainer Tim Yakteen.


There were three horses on the also-eligible list and all were added to the field. Cyclone Mischief, Mandarin Hero and King Russell will break from outside posts 17, 18 and 19, and carry the saddlecloth numbers of 21, 22 and 23.

Mandarin Hero, who primarily races in Japan, was a nose behind Practical Move in the Santa Anita Derby.

The first death occurred a week ago Thursday when Derby entrant Wild on Ice suffered an injury while training and subsequently was euthanized. This allowed Skinner to come into the race, at least temporarily.

Two horses died Saturday. Parents Pride, trained by Joseph, was pulled up in the stretch and collapsed and died. Previously unreported was an incident in the paddock where Code of Kings was being unsaddled and flipped twice and broke his neck. This was first reported by the Daily Racing Form.


On Tuesday, Take Charge Briana broke down in upper stretch and was euthanized. Chasing Artie, trained by Joseph, had finished her race and collapsed near the winner’s circle and died.

On Wednesday, Churchill Downs took the rare stance to acknowledge four of the deaths but not the one in the paddock.

“The safety and well-being of horses is a critical issue for which everyone in the industry shares responsibility,” the Churchill Downs statement read. "However, we will continue to take every measure to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for horses on our property.”

Churchill Downs does not make its fatality numbers public unlike tracks in California and New York.


On Thursday, the KHRC, in conjunction with Churchill Downs, suspended Joseph.

“Given the unexplained sudden deaths, we have reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses, and decided to suspend [Joseph] indefinitely until details are analyzed and understood,” said Bill Mudd, chief operating officer at Churchill Downs Inc.

All of which brings true race fans to the thing they most want to talk about — the race.

Kentucky Derby hopeful Forte works out at Churchill Downs.
Kentucky Derby hopeful Forte works out at Churchill Downs. The horse is the 3-1 favorite. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Given that so many of the horses have a similar running style, Saturday’s race is considered a great betting opportunity. If you were to ask most trainers where they would like their horse positioned, they probably would say "up close on a slow pace."


Forte is the 3-1 morning-line favorite but support for him is not solid.

“He won the Fountain of Youth, and he was just visually dynamic,” said Randy Moss, an analyst for NBC. “The Florida Derby was much more workmanlike. He looked like he was beaten at the quarter pole and even at the eighth pole, when Mage ran by him around the turn.

“He did pull it out at the end and won it by daylight, but the final time, by a speed figure perspective, didn’t blow anybody away visually. The win didn’t blow anybody away. I think that’s why he’s more of a lukewarm favorite now than his record might indicate he should be.”

Moss says he thinks it comes down to five horses: Forte, Tapit Trice, Derma Sotogake, Verifying or Angel of Empire.

And, at least for now, all of those horses are still in the race.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.