Mage, with Javier Castellano aboard, crosses the finish line to win the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday n Louisville, Ky. Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

LOUISVILLE — They began and finished the troubled 149th Kentucky Derby on Saturday evening, which must have come as relief after a run-up rife with tragedy and scratches. Mage, a 15-1 shot, caught Two Phil’s near the top of the stretch and won beneath various kinds of clouds, which had to come as manna to his trainer, Gustavo Delgado; his committee of owners; and his jockey, Javier Castellano.

The outcome brought a first Derby title to two Venezuelans: Delgado, who is accomplished in two countries, and the 45-year-old Castellano, who had won the Preakness twice (2006, 2017) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (2004). It also threw compliments on to the Florida Derby, where Mage finished second behind Forte, the initial Derby favorite who scratched Saturday morning.

It was only the fourth race for Mage, and it made him the first horse since Justify in 2018 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old, and only the second since Apollo in 1882. It all happened in 2 minutes 1.57 seconds.

Two Phil’s, the 9-1 shot who led for much of the race and around the second turn, managed to hold on to second against a charge from Angel of Empire, the Arkansas Derby winner, who nabbed third at 4-1 as something of a hip pick after Forte exited. Disarm, a 27-1 shot, took fourth.

Mage paid $32.42, $14.58 and $9.08. Two Phil’s returned $10.44 and $6.52 at 9-1 odds. Angel of Empire paid $4.70 to show.

Of all the two minutes run annually since 1875, these two came as maybe the utmost afterthought after the 10 shocking hours that preceded the traditional parade to post. By the time the gates opened, the sport’s grandest stage was reeling after seven deaths across the past 10 days and five Derby scratches across three.


The jolts of Saturday began when Forte, the early favorite, scratched around 9 a.m., the groaning peak of the five-horse spate of exits that began Thursday. The decision came at the behest of state veterinarians after Forte had a gallop, a bath and a few jogs, and after vets conversed with trainer Todd Pletcher and co-owner Mike Repole. It left the humans devastated, given their horse had won six of seven and five in a row, and it reflected both concerns about a three-day-old bruise on Forte’s right foot and the caution enveloping the sport in a country with changing mores.

Then the day’s races began, and two horses died after pulling up prematurely: Chloe’s Dream, a 3-year-old gelding in the second race, and Freezing Point, a 3-year-old colt in the eighth. Both horses ran beneath jockey Corey Lanerie, 19 times the leading jockey in Churchill Downs meets, and left in ambulances before they were euthanized.

They lengthened an abnormal rash of deaths with diverging and baffling causes at a track undergoing major renovations in a sport that has seen the number of deaths dip steadily, from 2 per 1,000 starts in 2009 to 1.25 per 1,000 in 2022, according to the Equine Injury Database. That 1.25 represented the lowest mark in the 14 years of the study.

The grim sequence began April 27, when Derby hopeful Wild On Ice was euthanized after suffering a fractured left hind leg near the end of a workout. It persisted twice April 29, when 4-year-old mare Parents Pride died after pulling up in the eighth race and, as reported by the Daily Racing Form, 3-year-old gelding Code of Kings died before the 10th race after flipping in the paddock and breaking his neck.

On Tuesday, 3-year-old filly Take Charge Briana died after suffering an injury in the fifth race on the turf course and 5-year-old gelding Chasing Artie collapsed and died after finishing the eighth race in poor form but without any apparent musculoskeletal injury.

As the state-mandated necropsies set to begin at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory, the list of Derby scratches grew from Thursday on.

Practical Move, the Santa Anita Derby winner, scratched midday Thursday, his handlers citing an elevated temperature. Lord Miles, the Wood Memorial upset winner, followed that afternoon as a byproduct of the indefinite suspension of trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who had wept at his barn that morning as he tried to process the deaths of Parents Pride and Chasing Artie, neither of whom suffered apparent injury. Churchill Downs said it had taken the action of suspending Joseph and requesting the scratching of his horses “until details are analyzed and understood.”

Continuar followed Thursday night, with trainer Yoshito Yahagi noting the colt’s suboptimal fitness. Skinner, who had run a close third in the Santa Anita Derby, followed Friday morning, with trainer John Shirreffs citing an elevated temperature.

Once Forte followed, three alternates had entered the field – Cyclone Mischief, Mandarin Hero and King Russell – and the number of entries had dipped below the limit of 20 to 18. All of it happened in a gathering climate of concern, reflected in Churchill Downs’ suspension of Joseph this past week and its two-year ban of star trainer Bob Baffert in June 2021. He was absent for the second straight Derby after his apparent 2021 winner, Medina Spirit, tested positive for an excess of a legal drug that must dissipate to a certain level in a horse’s system as of race time.

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