LOUISVILLE, Ky. — State veterinarians on Saturday morning scratched Forte, the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, after examining him and finding him unfit to compete because of a bruise on his right front hoof. Rumors that the colt was unwell had swirled throughout Churchill Downs over the week.
Kentucky regulators had no immediate comment, but the veterinarians were cautious in the run-up to the 149th running of the race after four horses died in six days at Churchill Downs. The deaths during Derby week brought attention to troubling aspects of the sport, which is declining in popularity and under scrutiny over its care and treatment of horses.
Forte was named last year’s 2-year-old champion and had won six of his seven races. He is well bred and trained by Todd Pletcher, a Hall of Famer. He was to be ridden by the nation’s top jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr.
Now only 18 horses will compete in the Derby. Forte is the fifth horse to be scratched from Saturday’s race, joining Practical Move, Lord Miles, Continaur and Skinner. The last time five horses were scratched from the Kentucky Derby was 1936, when 19 horses entered the race and 14 ran.
Mike Repole, Forte’s co-owner, said that the colt suffered the bruise on Wednesday. Repole said he and Pletcher called in their veterinarians and the state vets tasked with monitoring the health of the horses and clearing them for competition. The state veterinarians monitored Forte daily.
Forte galloped at about 7:45 a.m. on Saturday. He was examined again by the state vets, who told Repole the colt was still a “tick” off and was going to be scratched.
Repole said he was disappointed for Forte, Pletcher, Ortiz and the team that had prepared Forte for the race.
“You can only be a 3-year-old colt on the first Saturday in May one time in your life,” he told the TVG racing network.
The deaths of four horses in six days at Churchill Downs made the fragile nature of thoroughbred racing apparent. The Derby entrant Wild on Ice was euthanized after he sustained a leg injury; another horse was put down after an injury; and two collapsed and died during workouts.
In 2011, Repole had to scratch another 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo, the day before the race. The colt had come down with a gastrointestinal infection.
“I’m 0 for 7 in the Derby,” Repole said earlier in the week. “The pressure of having a horse like this is tough. We all hope and pray and dream that we can get here. When you do, what happens in the days before the race can be scary. He can get sick or hurt or step on something. You just want to get to the gate.”
In the days before the Derby, Churchill Downs is always rife with rumors and speculation about the well-being of the horses. And Forte was not spared the scrutiny.
The colt appeared to stumble during a Thursday gallop, and the moment, caught on video, was parsed by horseplayers and horse lovers alike.
On Friday, however, Pletcher dismissed the rumors. He said that Forte was ready to run and that he looked forward to giving Ortiz a leg up into the saddle on Saturday.
“He’s shown up and run well every start of his life, and I wouldn’t expect no different from him,” Pletcher said of Forte.
Early Saturday morning, Repole took many of his 75 family and friends in town for the Derby to have a private audience with Forte. They returned to the hotel full of hope.
It wasn’t to be.
“He may be able to run the Preakness if we want,” Repole said. “I think me and Todd are going to need more recovery than him.”