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 out of the race over fear for his health.

There was plenty of celebration as the massive Churchill Downs crowd 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.

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

Mage paid $32.42 to win. Two Phil’s was second followed by Angel of Empire, Disarm and Hit Show. The only Southern California horse in the race, Reincarnate, finished 13th.

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 Joseph indefinitely pending an investigation. Since he trained Lord Miles, the horse was scratched from the Derby.

Horse fatalities became a national issue in 2019 when Santa Anita had a huge spike in deaths and the track was shut down for 24 days. But the seven Churchill fatalities eclipse any 10-day period at Santa Anita where the most was six. Since then, measures put in place by the California Horse Racing Board and The Stronach Group have reduced fatalities by 55%.

California is one of the most transparent states when it comes to reporting horse fatalities. Kentucky is not. Churchill Downs does not make public its death totals.

Churchill Downs issued a statement after what it called four deaths, but was really five. Churchill Downs has been silent Saturday, as has been the KHRC, which has still not explained why Forte was scratched.

It’s not likely that some in the public and especially animal rights activists will remain silent after such a stretch of tragedy.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.