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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mage captures the Derby after an agonizing week at Churchill Downs

Mage, a 15-1 shot with Javier Castellano up, winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

By Joe Drape

The best thing you can say about the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby is that the 18 horses who made it to the starting gate Saturday survived. That came as a relief after at least seven horses died at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky in the past week, two of them Saturday in races leading up to America’s most famous race.

By the time the horses edged into the starting gate for what is an annual thoroughbred celebration on the first Saturday in May, all anyone who loves the sport was thinking — no, praying — was that these ethereal creatures and their riders get around the mile and a quarter race safely.

Could you blame them?

In the past week, seven horses died, one trainer and his horse were kicked off the grounds by regulators under a cloud of suspicion and four other Derby horses were declared out of the race. The most stunning was the favorite 3-1 morning line Forte — last year’s 2-year-old champion — whom Kentucky state veterinarians decided early Saturday morning was not healthy enough to compete even after nursing a bruised hoof for the last couple of days.

Forte was trained by a Hall of Famer, Todd Pletcher. He was co-owned by a passionate champion of horse racing, Mike Repole, who by his own estimate has sunk $300 million into buying horses, even as he confessed that he was confounded by the dysfunction that is tolerated in horse racing.

It was not a good day for a sport on life support.

Horse racing is fighting for its life as animal welfare activists call for its end at the same time that waning interest among gamblers has put it on the losing side of a battle with online sports betting.

The fragile nature of thoroughbreds themselves was front and center with Derby entrant Wild on Ice, who was euthanized after he sustained a leg injury while training.

The sport’s underbelly was exposed when two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. collapsed last week after racing beneath Churchill’s famed twin spires. Kentucky regulators and Churchill Downs, concerned about the unexplained deaths, told Joseph to take his horse and go home to his Florida base.

There was no real explanation for why Joseph was dispatched, and Churchill Downs officials stood by their statement that its dirt and turf tracks were not the cause of the repeated horse deaths. But on Saturday, after two more horses were loaded in equine ambulances and subsequently put to death, Churchill officials refused to comment.

The record will show a colt named Mage won in a solid 2:01.57 to give his Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano his first and fiercely sought-after Derby win. Castellano rode for his Venezuelan countryman Gustavo Delgado, Mage’s trainer, delivering a capstone victory for an everyday horseman based in Florida.

“He’s a little horse with a big heart,” said Castellano, who found the Derby’s winning circle on his 15th try. “It was the dream trip for any jockey.”

Castellano, 45, once was the most dominating rider in America: He was named the champion jockey every year from 2013 through 2016. His talent may not have waned, but his opportunities did, and the shades have inched down on the twilight of his career.

He took over the mount on Mage only after the younger Luis Sáez abandoned Mage to ride one of the favorites, Tapit Trice. Castellano, an old man by jockey standards, welcomed the opportunity to be Delgado’s second choice.

“The whole team gave me the opportunity to ride this horse in the biggest race in the world, “ Castellano said. “I had a lot of confidence in myself this year would be the year.”

Mage did not race as a 2-year-old and this was only his fourth start. He barely lost to Forte with Sáez aboard last month in the Florida Derby, getting caught in the final strides.

“I never gave up and tried hard. It took me a while to get there, but I’m very blessed to be here,” Castellano said.

Mage had to fight off a late surge by Two Phil’s to secure the victory — one that took the breath away from Delgado. Mage and Delgado are clearly moving on to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Still, Delgado was in no state to say how he would prepare the horse.

“Give me a couple of days at least,” he said.

Horse racing, too, needs a breath.

The spotlight should have belonged to Castellano and Delgado. Instead, it was eclipsed by a drumbeat of casualties that were barely explained and haltingly acknowledged from the one horse racing state, and the one racetrack, that the rest of the world knows.

American thoroughbreds are among the finest athletes in the world — collectively they are worth tens of millions — and are the bedrock of a multibillion-dollar agribusiness industry. But the sport has precipitously lost its hold in the United States, where it was once revered as a cornerstone of America’s character.

Either nature or neglect or abuse sent these athletes collapsing on the racetrack, soon to be hustled into equine vans to meet their grim fates.

It certainly was not the celebration of an American pastime that anyone wished for.

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