Two-thousand twenty-three was another tough year for the Sport of Kings. A dozen horses died at Churchill Downs in the days and hours leading up to the Kentucky Derby. At least 14 perished at Saratoga over the summer.
Forte, the favorite in the Derby odds, was scratched on the morning of the race because of what was described as a bruised right foot. Todd Pletcher, Forte’s Hall of Fame trainer, was suspended about a month later when an investigation revealed that he administered illegal drugs to the 2-year-old champion in 2022.
Jena Antonucci, though, provided desperately needed good news in 2023 by becoming the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race. And who could forget Cody’s Wish winning his career finale? But in the big picture, it was another tough year for a sport on life support.
Disastrous Derby Week Led To More Head Scratching
Two of the horses who died prior to the Derby were trained by Saffie Joseph, who was subsequently suspended by Churchill Downs. The ban was ultimately rescinded, but some of Joseph’s horses were transferred to other barns by nervous owners.
One of those was White Abarrio, who was sent to the Richard Dutrow stable. Dutrow returned to training in May after serving a 10-year suspension for numerous drug violations. It didn’t take long for the 64-year-old to score one of the biggest victories of his career. White Abarrio won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at 5-2 in the horse racing odds, so it was no secret that the 4-year-old was ready to run.
Here he is prior to the 2003 Breeders Cup Classic pic.twitter.com/ua3D38XDeH
— Eugene Viti (@eviti_viti) December 18, 2023
Girl Power: Antonucci Makes History
Antonucci has been training horses for 13 years, but the memories of 2023 will last a lifetime. The disciple of D. Wayne Lukas also became the second female trainer to win the Travers when Arcangelo validated his Belmont victory with another emphatic triumph. Arcangelo was scratched on the Tuesday of Breeders’ Cup week with a foot injury, underwent surgery and was retired to stud. He would have been among the Classic favorites in the Las Vegas odds.
Wish Granted: Cody’s Triumph Inspired Life Before Death
- There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Cody’s Wish won the Breeders’ Cup Mile. But the celebration was brief because Cody Dorman, the horse’s namesake, died the next day at age 17. Dorman, who had a rare disease called Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, passed away while traveling back from Santa Anita to his Kentucky home. In 2018, Dorman and the unnamed yearling formed an immediate bond during a Make-A-Wish Foundation visit to Gainsborough Farm. Cody’s Wish went on to finish 11-for-16 lifetime with a second and four thirds, and could win the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.
- Irad Ortiz Jr. continued to show why he is the best jockey in North America, and perhaps the world. Ortiz is the runaway leader in wins and earnings as the year comes to a close, and is a lock to claim his fifth Eclipse Award for outstanding American rider. The 31-year-old native of Puerto Rico won his first Eclipse in 2018.
- Mage won the Kentucky Derby in his fourth career start, paying $32.42 at the BetUS racebook. Mage gave trainer Gustavo Delgado and jockey Javier Castellano their first Derby victories by barreling down the stretch to win by one length.
- Castellano, a four-time Eclipse Award winner (2013-16) and Hall of Fame inductee in 2017, returned to prominence by also winning the Belmont and Travers.