John Clay

More than ever, horse racing needs an exciting and safe Kentucky Derby

For two minutes early Saturday evening an entire industry will hold its collective breath, not just to see what happens in its premier event, but what it fears might happen

The industry is horse racing and the event is the Kentucky Derby.

For the 145th time, our annual spectacle of spring will take place again on the historic dirt oval at Churchill Downs before 150,000-or-so fans in attendance and a worldwide television audience, all watching to see someone’s dream come true.

This year is different, however. Different for all the wrong reasons. The tragedy of 23 horse deaths in a mere 14 weeks at Santa Anita Park this winter has created an industry crisis that has all but overshadowed the sport’s most celebrated race.

“I think we’re all concerned, we’re all trying to improve and we’re all trying to make it a safer sport,” trainer Todd Pletcher, who has twice won the Kentucky Derby, said Thursday, “but the one thing is when you have bucket-list events like the Kentucky Derby, I think we’ll always be OK.”

Saturday will be the 38th consecutive Kentucky Derby I’ve covered, and as a Central Kentuckian, I’ve been around it enough to know that most everyone in the sport cares deeply about the animals they own, feed, train and race.

Exercise rider Ashlie Campbell comforted Kentucky Derby contender Gray Magician as he was bathed at Churchill Downs in preparation for Saturday’s race. Alex Slitz

You need look no further than Thursday morning when trainer Richard Mandella sat down for a news conference at the Churchill Downs media center. Mandella is a 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer who has never won a Kentucky Derby. This was to be his best chance, thanks to a sweet, talented colt named Omaha Beach. And then, just like that, Omaha Beach was discovered to have an entrapped epiglottis restricting his airway.

“Devastating,” was Mandella’s description of the decision to scratch the horse from Saturday’s race. “But as bad as it felt yesterday, it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him. So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next stop.”

For those who don’t closely follow horse racing, however, it’s difficult to square a class act like Mandella with animals being euthanized after catastrophic injuries. And it doesn’t help that racing lacks a unified governing body or commissioner.

“I was always one that was against us having a racing czar — the less government involvement the better — but I’m starting to change my mind,” said trainer Dale Romans at the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. “We need someone who will speak up for the sport.”

The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, announced the ban of race-day medications, including Lasix, which stops pulmonary bleeding, a move soon amended after complaints from trainers and owners. Other tracks have proposed similar measures. Just this week, Keeneland announced it is donating $1.3 million for equine drug research.

“There’s no connection that I know of between Lasix and breakdowns,” said Elliott Walden, CEO and racing manager at WinStar Farm in Versailles. “What people should know is that as an industry, we’re looking at everything we can to improve.”

Racing has survived such scrutiny before — the filly Ruffian’s death after a match race in 1975; Barbaro’s catastrophic injury at the 2006 Preakness. Yet this feels more like a possible tipping point for an industry fighting to keep its space in the sports landscape.

“This isn’t about a single track,” said a recent report by The Jockey Club. “Horse fatalities are a nationwide problem that has shocked fans, the industry, the regulators, and the general public.”

The good news is that as California has dried from an unusually wet winter, the equine deaths have halted. Still, the headlines linger.

That’s why more than anything the sport needs a good, clean race Saturday, one with a deserving winner, an ecstatic owner, a pleased trainer and, more importantly, all its horses safely back in their barns.

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