A lot of things stand out Derby week: who’s working well, who’s sore in a gallop, but – most importantly – who’s not here. In years past, it’s been earnings that have excluded talented horses like Rock Hard Ten and Sway Away.
What’s interesting is that, considering years past where top contenders seemed to drop like flies, this crop of three-year-olds has been pretty healthy. Yes, we’re missing juvenile Champion Shanghai Bobby to a pelvic fracture, Violence to a sesamoid fracture, and both Flashback and Hear the Ghost to knee chips.
But the other defections were all due to trainer decision. That’s right: choosing to bypass a once in a lifetime opportunity at Derby glory for the sake of your horse.
This cannot be an easy choice.
When Giant Finish eeked into the field by the skin of his teeth, owner Andy Cohen was quoted as saying “You only live once!” The Derby is the single most definable thing about our sport: say to anyone that you work in racing and the first question is either “have you been” or “have you won” the Kentucky Derby?!?
On the flipside of Cohen’s comment is Gary Contessa’s tweet about his charge, G3 winner Rydilluc, who had the points to qualify. “I hate to spoil the speculation party but Rydilluc is at Belmont with a very minor foot bruise and is not running in the Derby. We would have been there with bells on if he were perfect. Did somebody say Preakness?”
If he were perfect. That says it all right there: a true horseman making the best decision for his horse.
Similarly, Bob Hess Jr. declared his trainee, Merit Man, from consideration over a month ago. Only off the board once in his six race career, the son of With Distinction most definitely had the points to qualify. But Hess knew he had a sprinter on his hands and made the safe – and smart – call to point towards races like the Peter Pan instead.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert did the same with a quartet of runners – two of whom he brought to Louisville as workmates for his Oaks superstar. Super Ninetynine and Den’s Legacy worked together but stayed home, while Power Broker and Code West have each worked with Midnight Lucky under the twin spires. Of the four, only Code West is entered on the Derby undercard in a strong Allowance event.
When it comes to making the tough call not to run, sometimes the trainer gets overridden. Though he has the points, Tiz a Minister is not making the trip to Kentucky. As recently as the day after a third place finish in the Cal-bred Snow Chief Stakes at betfair Hollywood Park, trainer Paul Aguirre stated his horse would run. But his plans were stymied by a call to the racing office from owner Steve Young that the horse had developed a foot bruise and would not be making the trip.
And now that we’ve had the scratch of Black Onyx, you can add Kelly Breen to the list of outstanding horsemen doing what’s right for their horse. What a day Breen has had: first he thinks the colt just twisted or slept on the ankle wrong, then he gallops fine, then something’s not right, and – ultimately – they opt to scratch. Breen was given the choice to ice the joint and wait for the swelling to go down – while still running the horse; instead, he opted to x-ray the area and – after two sets were taken to make sure they saw everything – they found the non-displaced chip in the left front ankle.
Having sat through the I Want Revenge scratch press conference, it’s obvious what an agonizing decision it is to not run. In an industry where we sometimes lose hope in our people, to see these men consciously make that call when they have a healthy horse and a chance at the roses is a sign of a real horseman.