By Dick Jerardi
I covered the Kentucky Derby in person 32 times, once for a paper in Baltimore, 31 times for the “Philadelphia Daily News.’’ I was there once as a fan/player and once to experience the scene again and chronicle it for this site.
In my experience, there has never been a Derby Week like 2023. By the time the 18 horses emerged from the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday evening at 7 p.m., we had five scratches, including morning line favorite Forte Derby morning. The three also eligibles drew into the race.
There was sadness after several breakdowns, including two on the Derby Day undercard, that resulted in euthanasia. There were two unexplained horse deaths after races from trainer Saffie Joseph’s barn that resulted in Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Racing Commission ruling that none of Joseph’s horses could run at Churchill over the weekend. And those horses included Wood Memorial winner and Derby entrant Lord Miles.
Thankfully, the Derby itself delivered like it always does, an all-time great jocking finally winning “the’’ race in his 16th try, a legendary trainer from Venezuela finding a way to get a horse making just his fourth start to deliver an incredible performance for an eclectic ownership group that had way too many people to fit into the winner’s circle.
Mage was 15-1 not because he did not have talent, but because it seemed unlikely he could run the race of his life after not making his debut until Jan. 28 and racing hard in two key Derby preps (fourth behind Forte in the Fountain of Youth and second behind Forte in the Florida Derby). It just seemed like it was asking too much.
Turned out, trainer Gustavo Delgado, a champion many times over in his native country, knew exactly what he was doing with what, on paper, looked like very slow 6-furlong works prior to the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. He had come to America to win the big races, and when Mage charged from far back in the field to run down Two Phil’s in the stretch, he had won the biggest race of all.
And it was just perfect symmetry that Mage was ridden by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, himself a Venezuela native. Castellano had won just about every big race there is – except the Derby. His $382 million in career earnings is second all-time to John Velazquez. His 5,148 wins make him one of just 37 with 5,000 or more. But there was something missing. Now, it is no longer missing.
Pat Day won just a single Derby. Laffit Pincay won just one
Derby. Now, Castellano, one of the good guys in the game, has won his.
How hard is the Derby to win?
Trainer Steve Asmussen has won a North American record 10,092 races. He is 0-for-26 in the Derby. The riding Ortiz brothers (Irad and Jose) have combined for nearly $500 million in earnings. They have won more than 6,000 races between them. Neither has won the Derby.
Irad has ridden Forte in all his races. Forte has four Grade I wins. The 18 horses that ran in the Derby have combined for three. Irad ended up riding Cyclone Mischief who finished last, 55 1/2 lengths behind Mage, who had twice lost to Forte. It is a very tough and unpredictable game.
Two Phil’s finished a gallant second to Mage, with favored Pennsylvania bred Angel of Empire making a late run to finish third.
I picked Two Phil’s and bet on him at almost 10-1. I thought he ran as well as a horse can run without winning. After a half mile, there were five horses in the vicinity of the hot early pace – Confidence Game, Reincarnate, Kingsbarns, Verifying and Two Phil’s. Confidence Game finished 10th, beaten by 14 1/2 lengths. Reincarnate was 13th, 24 1/2 lengths behind, just ahead of Kingsbarns who was 25 1/2 lengths back. Verifying finished 16th, 54 3/4 lengths behind Mage.
Two Phil’s was beaten by just 1 length while his fellow pace setters/pressers were beaten by a combined 119 lengths. It is satisfying to know you made a good selection, but this game is so hard that when you are right about the performance, you would really like to get a good result.
In the end, we all get what we get. Churchill Downs got 150,335 fans for Derby 149. No telling how many they may squeeze in for Derby 150 next May. But let’s hope the race produces another great story and without all of the Derby Week drama.