Underdog Mage rallies to win 149th Kentucky Derby marked by lineup turmoil

Jockey Javier Castellano rides Mage across the finish line, winning the Kentucky Derby
Mage, ridden by jockey Javier Castellano, crosses the finish line Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., to win the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby. (Sam Mallon / Getty Images)

A week that horse racing would like to forget ended Saturday when Mage won the Kentucky Derby on a day in which two horses died and the favorite was scratched over fear for his health.

There was plenty of celebration as the massive Churchill Downs crowd of 150,335 watched as Mage and Two Phil’s battled down the stretch only to have the runner-up in the Florida Derby win by one length for trainer Gustavo Delgado in his third Derby try.

It was also a career accomplishment for jockey Javier Castellano, who picked up his first Kentucky Derby win in his 16th try.

“Sometimes you feel embarrassed a little bit when you been trying so many times, and you don't see the results,” Castellano said. “And sometimes you go down a little bit. But I didn't give up. I always tried to be positive and tried to find the right horse to participate in one of the biggest races in the world.”

Mage was making only his fourth-lifetime start and joined Justify as the only horse in a century to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.

“Not having the experience, he proved today that it didn’t matter,” said Gustavo Delgado Jr., an assistant trainer and spokesman for his father.

Still the lingering memory of this Derby lead-up will consist of thoughts of seven dead horses, a banned trainer and five horses that came here to run only to develop a problem that kept them from doing so.

Saturday started with the shocking news that Forte, the morning-line favorite, had to audition for the state veterinarians before they would let him run. Forte had a slight bobble during training Thursday that trainer Todd Pletcher dismissed as nothing. After an animated conversation between owner Mike Repole and state veterinarian Dr. Nick Smith on Saturday, as Pletcher looked on, Forte was scratched.

Forte joined Practical Move, Lord Miles and Continuar, each scratched Thursday. Skinner was scratched Friday.

It was followed a few hours later in the second race when Chloe’s Dream, a second-time starter, was pulled up by jockey Corey Lanerie early in the race. The 3-year-old gelding was taken off the course by van and euthanized. In the Pat Day Mile, Freezing Point, also ridden by Lanerie, was pulled up in the chute shortly after the start of the race and was vanned off. About an hour later, it was confirmed that the 3-year-old was also euthanized.

The deaths started a week ago Thursday when Derby qualifier Wild on Ice was injured in training and taken to an equine hospital in Lexington, Ky., where he was euthanized.

Jockey Javier Castellano rejoices after riding Mage to a victory in the Kentucky Derby on May 6, 2023.
Jockey Javier Castellano rejoices Saturday after riding Mage to a victory in the Kentucky Derby. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Last Saturday, Parents Pride, trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., was pulled up in the stretch and died on the track. In California, such an incident would be referred to as “sudden death” pending a necropsy. Later, in the paddock, Code of Kings flipped over twice and broke his neck and was euthanized.

There were two more deaths Tuesday. Take Charge Briana broke down in the stretch and was subsequently euthanized. Chasing Artie, also trained by Joseph, finished her race and collapsed near the winner’s circle.

The two dead horses trained by Joseph prompted the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to suspend him indefinitely pending an investigation. Since he trained Lord Miles, the horse was scratched from the Derby.

The race was left with 18 starters in the 20-horse starting gate. Verifying broke on top and was quickly joined by Kingsbarn and Reincarnate around the clubhouse turn in the 1 ¼-mile race. Entering the backstretch, Mage was in 15th place with plenty of work left to do. He seemed to find his stride down the backstretch, picking off horses and getting closer to the front.

Entering the homestretch, Mage was in full stride and went eight wide in an attempt to wrestle the lead from Two Phil’s. With about a furlong to run, Mage put his head in front with the outcome no longer in doubt.

“Once he made the lead, it was how we had planned the race to happen,” Delgado Jr. said. “Everything went according to plan. This is the dream I have, a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a note: ‘We’re going to win the Derby next year.’”

Mage paid $32.42 to win. Two Phil’s was second followed by Angel of Empire, Disarm, Hit Show, Derma Sotogake, Tapit Trice, Raise Cain, Rocket Can, Confidence Game, Sun Thunder, Mandarin Hero, Reincarnate, Kingsbarns, King Russell, Verifying, Jace’s Road and Cyclone Mischief.

“I felt so confident going into this race, because my dad was the trainer,” Delgado Jr. said. “And he was telling me step by step what he was doing with the horse. It was a masterpiece.”

Mage is the product of the new trend of selling microshares in a horse. There are about 400 owners, many of whom bought in for $50.

Most of those in attendance or who watched on television will not think about horse racing until next May. Most were also unaware of the horse deaths or the scratches that unquestionably shaped the outcome of the race.

Instead, a sport that has struggled for relevance in the crowded sports landscape will move on to Baltimore in two weeks for the running of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.