A $5,000 claiming race does not draw a lot of attention on most race cards. However, some unusual circumstances Wednesday put a spotlight on the fifth race at Churchill Downs.
Grand Forks, a stakes-winning 12-year-old mare who has not started since August 2000, was entered in a 61/2-furlong race over the main track for owner and trainer Kathleen Costello, but she was scratched from the 12-horse field by the order of the stewards while in the paddock.
Though Grand Forks had her comeback temporarily thwarted, the fact that she was even in the entry box was the source of some controversy.
The daughter of Quiet American has spent the past nine years as a broodmare on Rick Trontz's Hopewell Farm in Midway, but she had produced only one live foal, a filly by Skip Away who died just weeks after birth.
With Grand Forks' broodmare career over, Costello — who worked for Hopewell at the time but was later laid off — obtained the mare from Trontz this spring for use as a riding horse.
Trontz said he specified on the bill of sale that Grand Forks not be used for breeding purposes, but he never thought to spell out the same restriction for her racing career.
Thus, shortly after Costello began working with Grand Forks, she put the mare back in training at The Thoroughbred Center, where Grand Forks had three published workouts before showing up in the entries at Churchill Downs — much to Trontz's dismay.
"We were trying to find (Grand Forks) a nice home, and we had let (Costello) ride her at the farm," Trontz said Wednesday. "When she left and wanted to take her, she came back and asked for the (foal) papers saying she needed them for show or dressage.
"I guess I have to be much more careful and spell everything out next time because I never thought in a million years she would try and use her as a racehorse. We just took her at her word, and she wasn't honest. She's not doing the right thing."
Costello said she indeed intended to use Grand Forks as a riding horse, but the mare's enthusiasm convinced Costello to give her racing career another shot.
"She had so much spunk and, every time I rode her, she got higher and higher," said the 27-year-old Costello, who has not previously started a horse in a race. "She has been really happy, and she loves to run. Honestly, I did it for her."
When told of Trontz's reaction to her running Grand Forks nine years after her last race, Costello said, "It's none of their business. I have a bill of sale, and I'm not using her for breeding. She's my horse, and I can do what I want with her."
Grand Forks passed veterinarian inspections twice, and Costello passed the test to obtain her trainer's license, but the state stewards informed her in the paddock Wednesday afternoon that they wanted to see the horse work out for the state veterinarian before she would be allowed to race again.
"We felt it was in the best interest of both the betting public and the horse that we get more information before she is allowed to run again," John Veitch, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, said in a statement. "Currently, there are no rules in Kentucky that would prevent a horse of any age from racing. However, we had a combination of factors that concerned us: One, the owner and trainer had a trainer's license for only four months and had never started a horse before, and two, Grand Forks had not started in nine years.
"It was a tough call, but we made our decision with the betting public and the horse in mind."
Costello said she is aware she could face some backlash for trying to run a horse off a nine-year layoff, but she maintains that Grand Forks will eventually return to the track.
"You know, (the backlash) might happen the first time I run her but, when she wins that race and comes back fine, I think people will accept it," she said.
Grand Forks has three victories in 11 career starts including wins in the Arizona Oaks and Sun Devil Stakes at Turf Paradise during her 3-year-old season in 2000.
In what was then her final career outing, Grand Forks was claimed by Ian Jory on behalf of Trontz after running third in a 1-mile race at Del Mar that August.