LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A star-crossed Kentucky Derby lost its early favorite when Forte was scratched and two more horses died, making it seven in all, at Churchill Downs earlier Saturday, further blows to a sport already reeling from a series of doping suspensions and breakdowns.
“This is part of racing and it’s the cruel part,” Mike Repole, co-owner of Forte, said in an interview with FanDuel TV.
Forte was the fifth scratch from the Derby in the days leading up to the $3 million race for 3-year-olds. Chloe's Dream, a 3-year-old gelding, and Freezing Point, a 3-year-old colt, were injured in their races on the Derby undercard, becoming the sixth and seventh horses to have died at Churchill Downs in recent days.
The string of horse deaths cast a pall for some Derby-goers on a mostly cloudy and warm day.
"It’s concerning, and I hope they’re quickly trying the best they can to correct whatever’s going on,” said Michael Freeze, who along with his friend dressed up as jockeys. “They need to do whatever is best for the horses, and the sport in general.”
Chloe's Dream got hurt in the second race Saturday. The horse was taken off in an equine ambulance with a right front knee injury and was euthanized, trainer Jeff Hiles confirmed to The Associated Press.
“He just took a bad step out there,” Hiles said. "They could do the same thing running in the field as they could on the track. So it’s very unfortunate. That’s what we deal with.”
Freezing Point suffered a left ankle injury in the Pat Day Mile and was euthanized, trainer Joe Lejzerowicz told the AP. He said Fort Bragg, who finished third, came over and slammed into Freezing Point during the race.
“He just got bumped in the backstretch,” Lejzerowicz said. “He never took a bad step or bobble. He had a big heart.”
New antidoping and medication rules enforced by a central governing body of the sport are scheduled to take effect May 22.
“There’s something going on,” said Pat Murtha, who was attending his first Derby. “They need to find out, and set some rules and regulations to protect these animals.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner, is nearing the end of a two-year ban issued by Churchill Downs Inc. One of his horses, Medina Spirit, crossed the finish line first in the 2021 Derby and failed a post-race drug test. The horse was disqualified and Baffert was punished.
In 2019, over 30 horse deaths occurred at California's Santa Anita racetrack, rattling the industry and leading to safety reforms. Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Rick Dutrow had his license revoked in 2011 for 10 years by New York officials. Regulators found syringes loaded with unauthorized medication in a desk in his barn. Dutrow re-opened his stable last month.
Forte had been the early 3-1 favorite; his absence reduces the field to 18 horses for the 1 1/4-mile race.
Repole said veterinarians from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission diagnosed Forte with a bruised foot. He said the colt had developed the bruise a few days ago. The colt stumbled during a workout Thursday, although trainer Todd Pletcher had downplayed it publicly.
Behind the scenes was a different story.
“We did X-rays, we brought in vets, the state vets came in and they watched him every single day,” Repole said in the interview. “He's fine. He probably needs a couple more days (to recover).”
Pletcher still has two horses in the Derby: Tapit Trice and Kingsbarns.
A crowd of about 150,000 is expected to jam Churchill Downs to wager and watch the Derby. Post time is 6:57 p.m. EDT.
The horse deaths included Derby contender Wild On Ice. Two of the horses were trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. He was indefinitely suspended by the track, although investigators have yet to determine a cause for the deaths of his horses.
“It doesn’t make me happy to see a horse get euthanized,” said racegoer Joe Conforto, wearing jockey goggles and a stuffed horse on his head. “But I think a lot of it is bad luck. Most race horses are taken better care of than human beings.”
Four horses were scratched — Practical Move, Lord Miles, Continuar and Skinner — in recent days. Practical Move and Skinner had fevers, while Continuar wasn't in peak condition, according to his Japanese trainer. Lord Miles was Joseph's Derby horse.
Forte was last year’s 2-year-old champion and has a five-race winning streak.
“You can only be a 3-year-old colt on the first Saturday in May one time in your life,” Repole said. “I feel bad for the horse.”