Update: Derby turmoil continues as favorite Forte sidelined

Symbolic statue: One of the attractions at Churchill Downs is the statue of Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Barbaro was injured in his next race, the Preakness Stakes, and later euthanized. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

The cast of characters for the 149th Kentucky Derby was rewritten again hours before the race Saturday when early favorite Forte was scratched.

It was the fifth scratch from the Derby in the days leading up to the $3 million race for 3-year-olds. Five horses have died at Churchill Downs in recent days.

The horse deaths included Derby contender Wild On Ice. Two of the horses were trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., who was indefinitely suspended by the track although investigators have yet to determine a cause for the deaths of his horses.

The four horses scratched before Forte’s defection were Practical Move, Lord Miles, Continuar and Skinner. Practical Move and Skinner had fevers, while Continuar wasn’t in peak condition, according to his Japanese trainer. Lord Miles was Joseph’s Derby horse and was ruled out after the trainer was suspended.

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Forte had been the early 3-1 favorite; his absence reduces the field to 18 horses for the 1 1/4-mile race.

Mike Repole, co-owner of Forte, said veterinarians from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission had concerns about a bruised right front foot. Forte stumbled during a workout on Thursday, although trainer Todd Pletcher had downplayed it. He still has two horses in the race: Tapit Trice and Kingsbarns.

A crowd of about 150,000 is expected to jam Churchill Downs in Louisville to wager and watch the Derby. Post time is 5:57 p.m. Central time. The race will be televised on NBC.

Last year’s Derby was a stunner as Rich Strike won at odds of 80-1 after getting into the race when another horse scratched, and the absence of Forte makes what was already a wide open renewal look even more susceptible to surprises.

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The volatility of the field could work to the benefit of Louisville-born trainer Brad Cox, who has a leading four chances to make the winner’s circle: early 8-1 third choice Angel of Empire; Hit Show; Verifying; and Jace’s Road. Cox won his first Derby belatedly: his runner-up Mandaloun was elevated to first place when Medina Spirit was disqualified nine months after the 2021 race.

“There’s no thrill of winning the Derby through a phone call,” he said. “There’s no celebration, there’s no winning picture. I’m sure it would be a feeling like no other.”

With Forte out, Cox’s Angel of Empire and Pletcher’s Tapit Trice became co-favorites with Saturday morning odds for both listed at 9-2 on Churchill Downs’ TwinSpires website.

Like their trainer, Hit Show owners Gary and Mary West are seeking retribution for a previous disappointment.

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Their horse, Maximum Security, crossed the Derby finish line first in 2019, but was disqualified for interference after a 22-minute delay while stewards reviewed video. Country House was awarded the garland of red roses. The Wests sued unsuccessfully to have the stewards’ decision reversed.

“They would like to cross the wire first and stay up,” Cox said. “They got a really live crack. This colt is really doing well.”

A couple of jockeys are looking for similar satisfaction.

Luis Saez rode Maximum Security in 2019 and received a 15-day suspension for interfering with others; he’s seeking his first Derby win aboard Tapit Trice. Florent Geroux, who was on Mandaloun, is on Jace’s Road.

For the second straight year, the Derby is without Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer with a record-tying six victories is soon to complete a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc. He was punished after Medina Spirit flunked a post-race drug test.

Despite his absence, Baffert’s shadow still looms large over the Twin Spires. A colt previously trained by him, Reincarnate, will be in the starting gate.

Japan is represented by Derma Sotogake and Mandarin Hero, giving the nation two chances to win the Derby for the first time.

Derma Sotogake and Two Phil’s are the most experienced runners in the field, having made eight career starts.

“He has a lot of experience and it has made him tougher and tougher,” said Christophe Lemaire, who will ride Derma Sotogake. “It is important to have that experience with 18 other horses in a high-level race.”

Confidence Game, a 20-1 shot, will try to win coming off an unheard of 10-week layoff. Confidence Game is co-owned by Don’t Tell My Wife Stables, a racing operation co-founded by Fort Worth resident Kirk Godby.

Saturday’s forecast calls for partly sunny skies and a high of 77 degrees.