One Year after Horror, the Kentucky Derby Aims to Restore Splendor

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Brian Hernandez Jr. rode Thorpedo Anna to win the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs one day before the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE – A 2023 Kentucky Derby fraught with devastation and deterioration has yielded to a 2024 Kentucky Derby plump with renovation and rejuvenation – in just about all categories except that trainer Bob Baffert remains absent.

Whereas the 149th Derby dawned last year after five horse deaths during racing in the previous eight days before tacking on two more during Derby day races and five more in the three weeks thereafter, the 150th dawns without any such horror strewn across its week. Revival signs include the implausible presence of the Mike Repole-Todd Pletcher team as favorites yet again 12 months after their forced heartbreak, the entries of three trainers whose horses died last spring at Churchill Downs and a dramatic $200 million renovation of the paddock and other areas.

Baffert, that six-time winner whose apparent seventh winner, Medina Spirit in 2021, lost the crown because of a medication that had not cleared the system at the race deadline, remains disallowed. Churchill Downs took his two-year suspension from that affront and ratcheted it to three after judging his remorse insufficient (or absent). Otherwise, whereas the atmosphere of fear helped fuel five scratches before post time last year – two of those by decree from authorities – only 20-1 shot Encino has scratched this year, leaving room for Epic Ride two years after a similar alternate’s chance let in Rich Strike, who won the race at 80-1. And rather than the biggest day of the racing year screaming a sport with more of a past than a present, a 149-year-old racetrack looks gussied up for a future.

The paddock, where the entries saddle, parade and prepare to walk through the tunnel to the gigantic arena, looks like an arena itself, fit for a bullfight, a boxing match or maybe even a UFC cage. It feels like a spruced-up version of the “Bull Ring” tennis court at Roland Garros. Joining the fresh viewing levels are ground-level cafes with stunning vistas onto the paddock, with the window glass one-way so the horses cannot gaze indoors, covet the buffet, recoil at certain hats and grow rattled.

The expected 20 horses whom diners and others might view getting saddled include three for trainers who lost horses last spring among the deaths of Wild on Ice, Code of Kings, Parents Pride, Take Charge Briana, Chasing Artie, Chloe’s Dream, Freezing Point, Rio Moon, Lost in Limbo, Bosque Redondo, Swanson Lake and Kimberley Dream. Those three trainers are Saffie Joseph Jr., who aims to race Catalytic, a distant second in the 2024 Florida Derby; D. Wayne Lukas, the marvel at 88 whose Just Steel finished second in the 2024 Arkansas Derby; and Michael W. McCarthy, whose Endlessly won the 2024 Jeff Ruby Steaks, a Cincinnati-area race.

Most evocative among those trainers is Joseph, the 37-year-old native Barbadian based in Florida who stood at his barn last year and wept after the deaths of his 4-year-old filly, Parents Pride, and his 5-year-old gelding, Chasing Artie. He said, “How can it not cause self-doubt,” and, “I mean, it shatters you,” and, “We’re testing all the feed, the hay, the straw, the supplements, anything like that to see if there’s any part on our part.” Nonetheless Churchill Downs ordered the scratch of his Derby entry, Lord Miles, and suspended him altogether, which ended June 30 when Churchill Downs surveyed “the details available to us as a result of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission investigation” and found “no basis to continue Joseph’s suspension.”

By September, an investigation of the new Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority concluded: “There was no causal relationship between the racetrack surface at Churchill Downs and the equine fatalities. Similarly, there was not a clear pattern in medical histories or injury profiles across the fatalities that point to a single, causal explanation for the fatalities. Nor were there any medication violations present.”

“All is well with him,” Joseph said this week of Catalytic.

The headliners of the rejuvenated include owner Repole and trainer Pletcher, whose Fierceness won the Florida Derby by 13½ lengths to grab considerable favorite status here. They’re back at it just 364 days after their favorite, Forte, scratched on Derby morning upon orders from state veterinarians who viewed the colt’s bruised right foot and chose caution. It crushed and saddened Repole for 36 hours, he estimated. “Now, did I expect to be in this position again in my life after Forte?” he said. “Absolutely. Did I expect it to be 12 months later? No. What are the odds of having two 2-year-old champions back-to-back and two Derby favorites? I can manifest a lot of things, but I’m not that powerful, trust me.”

Even in a sport in which racing deaths have dropped from 2.0 per 1,000 starts in 2009 to 1.32 in 2023 according to the Jockey Club – this does not count deaths while training – the atmosphere of tragedy rippled to places it might not have rippled otherwise. “You know,” Repole said, “when we look back at last year, obviously there were injuries, catastrophic injuries that occurred that week, that really put the vets, the industry and Churchill under the gun. And I think that they were extra cautious, extra cautious for good reason. And I think that, you know, Forte became a maybe, maybe-not type of horse that they said, ‘Maybe not.’ ” That led to an odd Sunday morning on which Pletcher said he felt certain Forte would have performed well if allowed.

Very-fast-forward another year, and Repole said Thursday: “The one thing I’ve always said is that Todd Pletcher would never run a horse that he would think he would put in danger on the track. And he’s a guy who’s been doing this for 28 years, at the highest level. And Forte came back five weeks later, with a span of 10 weeks between races, and was second in the Belmont. If he would have ran in the Derby, whether he would have won or lost, that race probably makes him first in the Belmont. Having that 10-[week] gap and going a mile and a half in the first start back is not ideal. So for a horse that was injured, to come back five weeks later and be second in the Belmont at a mile and a half, I don’t know, you tell me. And then he came back and won the Jim Dandy [at Saratoga in late July].”

“But,” he concluded, “the past is the past, I’ve moved on. And I understand it. Now, what would have happened if Churchill had a perfect week and there were no casualties? I don’t know. We’ll never know.”

The moving on has hurried up.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Todd Pletcher watches Fierceness, whom he trained. Fierceness is expected to run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.