LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Saturday morning state veterinarians scratched Forte, the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, after an injury to his right front hoof found him ineligible to compete. Rumors that the donkey was unwell had been circulating throughout Churchill Downs for a week.
Kentucky regulators had no immediate comment, but vets were wary of the race’s 149th running after four horses died in six days at Churchill Downs. The deaths during Derby week have drawn attention to the complexities of the sport, which is declining in popularity and has come under scrutiny over the care and treatment of horses.
Forte was named champion 2-year-old last year and won six of his seven races. He was well raised and trained by Hall of Famer Todd Fletcher. He was to be ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., the nation’s top jockey.
Now only 18 horses compete in the Derby. Forte is the fifth horse to be scratched from Saturday’s race, joining Practical Move, Lord Miles, Continor and Skinner. The last time five horses were scratched from the Kentucky Derby was in 1936, when 19 horses entered the race and 14 ran.
Forte’s co-owner Mike Rebol said the colt was injured Wednesday. Rebol said he and Fletcher called their veterinarians and the state veterinarians responsible for monitoring the horses’ health and sending them to competition. State veterinarians monitored Forte daily.
The forde hit around 7:45 a.m. Saturday. He was re-examined by state veterinarians, who told Repol the donkey was still “ticked” off and was going to be scratched.
Repole said he was disappointed with Forte, Pletcher, Ortiz and the team that prepared Forte for the race.
“Once in your life you can be a 3-year-old colt on the first Saturday in May,” he told racing network TVG.
Four horses died in six days at Churchill Downs, revealing the fragile nature of thoroughbred racing. Wild on ice entered in Derby euthanized after leg injury; Another horse was put down after an injury; Two more died after collapsing during exercise.
In 2011, Repol had to scratch another 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo, the day before the race. The cub developed a gastrointestinal infection.
“I’m 0 for 7 in the derby,” Rebol said earlier in the week. “The pressure of having a horse like this is tough. We all hope, pray and dream to get here. When you do, it’s scary what happens in the days leading up to the race. He could get sick or hurt or step on something. You’ve got to get to the gate. .”
In the days leading up to the Derby, Churchill Downs was always full of rumors and speculation about the well-being of the horses. And Forte is not immune to scrutiny.
The moment the colt stumbled and fell during Thursday’s race, captured on video, was scrutinized by horsemen and horse lovers alike.
However, on Friday, Fletcher dismissed the rumours. He said Forte is ready to run and is looking forward to giving Ortiz a leg up on Saturday.
“He’s been great in every start of his career and I don’t expect anything else from him,” Fletcher said of Forte.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Rebol took several of his 75 family and friends to Derby to have a private audience with Forte. They returned to the hotel with confidence.
“He can run the Preakness if we want,” Rebol said. “I think Todd and I will need more recovery than him.”