The famed garland of red roses will be draped over the horse that crosses the line first in the Kentucky Derby.
It would be an even bigger triumph if all 19 of these marvelous animals make it under the wire safely.
As horse racing prepares for its biggest day, everyone around Churchill Downs is holding their breath just a bit.
The one thing the sport can’t afford is another tragedy.
A dark cloud has settled over the sport of kings in recent months, and we’re not even talking about a stormy forecast that might turn the track into a muddy mess come Saturday.
On the West Coast, a rash of deaths during the winter racing season led to a temporary shutdown at famed Santa Anita and fueled an increasingly bellicose crusade by animal-right activists who want to put a pursuit they see as inhumane out to pasture.
If, heaven forbid, another horse should break down with more than 100,000 watching in the stands and millions more tuning in on NBC, it might be time to acknowledge that racing is truly – and deservedly – in the homestretch of its very existence.
While the scratching of favorite Omaha Beach was a huge disappointment, it also was an encouraging indication that horse racing realizes the stakes have never been higher.
Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the horses, along with those who ride them.
Not even the Kentucky Derby, one of the rare days when this niche sport goes mainstream.
“When you learn about horse racing, the first thing you learn is the Kentucky Derby,” said Richard Mandella, the Hall of Fame trainer for Omaha Beach. “Whether you are a jockey or trainer or groom, a hot walker, an owner, it doesn’t matter. The Kentucky Derby is what everybody knows. Everybody has that dream to win it.”
But when Mandella’s horse was having trouble breathing, he made the decision to pull him out of the race. It was a gut-wrenching call, for both the trainer and the colt’s owner.
Mandella has never won the Derby with six previous starters. At his age, this very well could be his final shot. Ditto for the colt’s 78-year-old owner, Rick Porter. He is a cancer survivor who has twice finished second in the Derby, including the tragic year of 2008 when his filly, Eight Belles, broke her front legs after crossing the finish line and had to be euthanized.
“Horsemen care for their animals,” Mandella said. “We don’t always get the warning and things happen. But horsemen always look for the warning signs and don’t want to do the wrong thing.”
With that in mind, longshot Haikal joined Omaha Beach on the scratched list Friday morning because of an abscess in his left front hoof.
Omaha Beach had trained well and shown no signs of distress during his time on the track at Churchill Downs. But after the colt developed a cough, a veterinary exam revealed an entrapped epiglottis. While generally not a career-threatening condition, it does have to be corrected with minor surgery.
That means this Omaha Beach won’t compete in any of the Triple Crown events.
“As bad as it felt” to scratch the horse, Mandella said, “it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him.”
If this sport is to survive, that is the mantra everyone must adopt.
Tighter rules and regulations are fine, and some sort of national governing body is sorely needed, but none of that will matter if human beings don’t do the right thing. There’s no way to keep an eye on every farm, every barn, every stall.
Death at the racetrack is hardly a new phenomenon, of course. Ruffian died from injuries sustained in a highly publicized match race in 1975. Barbaro shattered a leg during the 2006 Preakness and succumbed to the injuries about eight months later. And then there was Eight Belles, horribly breaking down while being slowed after completing the Derby, leading to her being put to death right on the track.
Yet, those always seemed like isolated incidents. The gruesome season at Santa Anita, where 23 horses have perished since the day after Christmas, cast a spotlight on enormity of the problem, which clearly extends far beyond a single track.
Activist Patrick Battuello says that thousands of racing horses die every year in the U.S., a grim toll that he painstakingly documents on his https://horseracingwrongs.com web site.
He lists 817 horses that were killed while racing or training in 2018, plus another 100 that died on track grounds from what were described as non-racing ailments. So far in 2019, the list includes 84 horses killed while racing or training and another 12 that died on track grounds, which sounds like a significant decline until Battuello points out that countless deaths are sure to be added to the list after he files his annual flurry of freedom-of-information requests at the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, Churchill Downs announced a series of safety initiatives two weeks ago, including a new $8 million equine medical center, a proposal to eliminate use of the disputed drug Lasix on race days, and additional camera surveillance of all track facilities. But all of those will take a year or longer to implement, meaning they won’t have any impact on this year’s Derby.
So hold your breath.
When the gate springs open on Saturday, all we can do is hope everyone makes it back alive.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter.
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