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What Went Down at Churchill Downs?

The 149th Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby happened just a couple of weeks ago, on May 5th and 6th respectively. Every year, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, draws the largest viewing audience and in-person attendance of any North American horse race. This year, I was able to witness both races. I now definitely understand the reason the Derby has been dubbed “the fastest two minutes in sports.”

The Kentucky Oaks filled Churchill Downs with patrons dressed in pink, scattered all throughout the stands and infield. Patrons wear pink for two reasons: the Oaks is the running of three-year-old female horses (fillies) and the Oaks raises awareness for breast and ovarian cancer. 14 fillies took off from the starting gate for the 1 1/8 mile race around the famous track. While the favorite to win the Oaks was Wet Paint with 5-2 odds, the filly was quickly found towards the middle of the pack, where she would remain and finish fourth. However, the horse that took home the $1.25 million

Kentucky Oaks purse was Pretty Mischievous, run under jockey Tyler Gaffalione. It was the filly’s second win in three starts this season.


Forte, original favorite to win the 149th Kentucky Derby.


The Derby also had its fair share of surprises this year. Leading up to the famous race, the favorite to win was Forte, run under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., and trained by two-time Derby winner and four-time Oaks winner, Todd Pletcher. However, as a shock to the horse-racing world, Forte was scratched Saturday morning, just hours before the race. Pletcher said the horse had sustained a foot injury during practice that morning and was pulled from the race by Churchill Downs veterinarians.

With Forte out of the race, we knew this Derby was going to be an interesting one. The race was run with only 18 horses, the lowest number since the 2020 pandemic race, which had 15 horses, according to BleacherReport. There was no clear favorite with Forte out as Tapit Trice and Angel of Empire both had favorable odds, but it was clear this race was most likely going to hold some surprises.


As the bell rang to signal the start of the race, Tapit Trice and Angel of Empire got off to a slow start, nowhere near the top six; they were the two slowest out of the gate, starting last and second-to-last, respectively. The race was dominated by Verifying, Kingsbarns, Reincarnate, and Two Phil’s for the first 3/4 mile. Then Verifying started dropping back, leading to a battle for first between Kingsbarns and Two Phil’s. The last 1/4 mile is where the story changes. Mage, under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, came barreling down the outside from the back of the pack to overtake Kingsbarns and Two Phil’s, ultimately beating Two Phil’s by one length. This was Castellano’s first Derby win, and he and Mage will continue their bid for the Triple Crown during the 148th Preakness Stakes on May 20th in Baltimore, Maryland.

Mage and jockey Javier Castellano crossing the finish line of the 149th Kentucky Derby.


While the Hall of Fame jockey’s first Derby win was special, it was not the biggest story to come out of Churchill Downs that week. There was a large shadow cast over the famous, star-studded weekend in Louisville after seven horses died at the Downs, including two occurring the morning of the Kentucky Derby. According to CBS News, over the course of 10 days leading up to the Derby, seven horses passed away at Churchill Downs, with four of the animals having to be euthanized due to injury. Three other horses also passed away at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, the week prior, bringing the death toll in Kentucky to 10 horses. Two of the horse deaths at Churchill Downs were mysterious and unexpected and were both being trained by Saffie Joseph, Jr. Now, Joseph Jr. is under investigation after being suspended indefinitely from Churchill Downs, and the rest of his horses were scratched from competing at the Downs. All of this tragedy led to a total of five horses being scratched from starting the Kentucky Derby, the most since 1936 according to BleacherReport.


Horse racing will now turn to Baltimore, Maryland, for the second of the Triple Crown races, the Preakness Stakes. This will hopefully help put the Derby and the tragedies at Churchill in the rearview mirror as all attention will be on Castellano and his colt in their quest for the Triple Crown.


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