Mage's magical Kentucky Derby win overshadowed by specter of animal death in the sport

Kentucky Derby winner Mage ran a magnificent race and has an inspirational story. But the deaths of seven horses hang over Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the chaos of the Kentucky Derby winners' circle, the numerous owners of Mage and their friends gathered around the infield cupola and unfurled a Venezuelan flag. They shouted “Gustavo! Gustavo! Gustavo!” in honor of their trainer, Gustavo Delgado, who moved to America eight years ago after conquering the Triple Crown four times in his home country.

Between Delgado, his son Gustavo Jr., bloodstock agent Ramiro Restrepo and the various people they had sold pieces of Mage to last year, it was a tapestry of backgrounds, nationalities and languages beginning a celebration that would surely go all night. 

And it looked like it was going to be a lot of fun.

“It's one heck of a melting pot that came together for this horse,” Restrepo said.

This is the image horse racing wants to project on the only day all year when the average sports fan pays attention: A majestic animal who ran a magnificent race, an inspirational story of immigrants who dreamed of making it on the biggest stage and dozens of regular folks who bought in for a couple thousand bucks through an app that sells fractional shares of racehorses to the general public.

Unfortunately, it is not the image that America is going to take away from the 149th Kentucky Derby. Instead, it is going to be the specter of animal death that hangs over this sport and the unwillingness of anyone in a position of authority in horse racing to either explain it or own it. 

Jockey Javier Castellano holds a rose as he and Mage walk to the Winner's Circle after winning the 149th Kentucky Derby Saturday.

About an hour before Mage circled the field and ran down Two Phil’s to pull a 15-to-1 upset, Mike Repole was standing in the regular Churchill Downs winners’ circle that they use every day. His horse Up to the Mark had just won the Turf Classic, an important Grade 1 race for grass horses.

Repole should have been thrilled, and in a sense he was. But it was impossible not to acknowledge that he was part of the larger story of Saturday when Forte, the pre-race favorite, was removed from the Derby field by a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission veterinarian who deemed him unfit to race because of a hoof bruise. 

OPINIONKentucky Derby's fragility on display with favorite Forte's morning scratch

“I separate the stings from the successes,” Repole said. “That sting is always going to hurt. This win, on a really tough day for me and my family, is always going to be special and remembered. People have to understand life is a roller coaster, and I'm just blessed I get some highs with the lows.”

Make no mistake, Repole wanted to run. He didn't say it explicitly, but he didn’t need to. Whether the horse was fit to run or not, the decision to scratch was made because the people at Churchill were spooked by a spate of deaths on the racetrack over the past week.

Their fears were likely justified. Two more horses were euthanized after races on Saturday, bringing the total to seven in the lead-up to the Derby.

It’s relatively rare, but those types of injuries can happen on the racetrack. It’s an unfortunate part of the sport that every owner, trainer and jockey fears, and when it happens, it brings horse racing under uncomfortable scrutiny. 

But seven dead horses in a little more than a week? That’s not normal. That’s not acceptable. And the worst part is, nobody can put their finger on why. 

“It’s nothing with the track,” said Javier Castellano, the jockey for Mage. "I think the track is in great condition.”

'It's a great sport, but it needs help'

Of course, nobody in the horse racing industry wants to talk about it — especially on Derby Day. If this were a well-run and regulated sport, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission would have put its leadership and veterinarians in front of the media Saturday morning to explain to the public why the favorite was scratched from the race. Churchill Downs would have called a press conference for its track superintendent to answer whether there was an issue with the racetrack. There should have been some type of official release and explanation about exactly what happened with the horses that died. 

None of that happened Saturday. Only late at night, well after the Derby had been run, did Churchill Downs release a statement acknowledging the two deaths “with the utmost sadness” and the “need to mobilize our industry in order to explore every avenue possible and effectively minimize any avoidable risk in the sport.”

Too little, and much too late. 

“It’s embarrassing that we can't communicate,” Repole said. "I can’t believe that I, the guy who had the horse, had to be the one communicating this for the sport. It’s embarrassing, OK?

“It's a great sport, but it needs help. There's a lot of great sports that need help. The NBA needs some help. The NFL needs a lot of help with concussions and this and that.”

But in other sports, the stakes rarely seem this high. America’s obsession with the NFL proves that fans can withstand watching their athletes get injured. They cannot abide watching them die. 

And when it happens on Derby Day, with 150,000 people in the stands here and millions more watching on television, it demands far more than what horse racing gives. Even for people like Repole, who have been around racetracks for decades, this is an unfortunate but tolerable part of the sport. That is simply disconnected from the reality most casual fans feel when they hear about horses breaking down and dying. 

“We need to do a better job of educating people about horse racing,” Repole said. 

Education, however, doesn’t save lives, much less fix broken bones and ligaments. When people who only watch horse racing one day a year hear about seven deaths in a week, they are more likely to sympathize with PETA, which put out a statement Saturday calling Churchill “a killing field” and suggesting that they should be playing “Taps” before the race instead of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Overwrought as that may be, you cannot have a Derby Day like this one and not expect wider implications. And that’s too bad, because there is indeed some magic in a story like Mage. 

Mage's background

This is what horse racing is supposed to be.

Here’s the nutshell version: Restrepo and Delgado Jr. have been buying horses for a few years for Delgado Sr. to train, hoping to raise both his and their profiles in the sport. Last year, they spotted Mage at a 2-year-old auction and got him for $290,000, which isn't a huge sum at this level of horse racing but more than their modest operation had planned. So they sold off 50 percent of the horse to various partners, including Commonwealth, which sells microshares through an app.

"This is a game that there's so many successful people buying in bulk at the highest end of the sport,” Restrepo said. “They have unlimited bullets, and we have a musket. So when we buy, we almost can’t miss.”

As the partners of different ages and backgrounds came together from across the country, they knew Mage had talent but had no idea how far he would take them.

Though he didn’t run his first race until late January, Mage showed a lot of talent early and ran a big second to Forte in the Florida Derby in just his third career start. The sweeping move he made around the second turn in that race was a carbon copy of what he did Saturday — except this time, he had enough experience and stamina to hold on in the stretch. 

In the box where Mage’s owners watched the race, there were hugs and owners jumping on tables. Delgado, who grew up in an era where the Venezuelan horse Canonero II became a legend by winning the Derby in 1971, was hugging everyone he could as he made his way across the track to the winners’ circle. 

And Mage, who occupied the same barn as Secretariat when he won the Derby 50 years ago, is now the biggest star in the sport and a representative of why people are drawn to its game despite its dangers and problems. 

But the problems aren’t going away. After a Derby Day filled with both excitement and tragedy, they seem farther than ever from being resolved. 

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