Reflections on Kentucky Derby: Photo finish, star jockey, risk-taking trainer

The Sporting Tribune's Louie Rabaut was at Churchill Downs and offers his reflections on Kentucky Derby 150.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The sports media world is full of hyperbole.  This is especially true in 2024.

On a recent episode of ESPN’s First Take, they asked a simple question: “Did LeBron save his legacy by not getting swept by the Nuggets?”

This is, of course, a silly question.  I host a two hour weekday radio program here at the ESPN affiliate in Louisville, and we have a schtick on the show of making fun of these types of segments. 

We ask silly questions like “How does a three-way finish in the Kentucky Derby affect Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys?  We talk about it NEXT.”  Not everything is about the NFL, not everything is about the Cowboys, not everything is about LeBron’s status as one of the greatest athletes in our nation’s history.

But I’ll get the hyperbole out of the way immediately: Given all the factors, the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby is the best race I’ve ever seen.

The race itself was near-perfect. The early pace was fast, but expected; the pack was tight enough that everyone had a chance; and that finish – the first photo finish involving three horses in the Kentucky Derby since 1947.  It was incredible to watch.

And the environment.  My goodness.  I’m a lucky guy – I’ve had the same spot on radio row at the Derby since 2018.  Same table every year.  And we get to interact with race-goers — there are no dividers, walls, anything — between us and the ticket-buying public.  It’s great.  And their reaction to that race was legendary, and appropriate.

It’s the greatest horse race I’ve ever attended.

What we learned this weekend

Hernandez Jr. is top-tier jockey.

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. cemented his spot amongst the top-tier of jockeys this weekend.  Hernandez became the first jockey since Calvin Borel in 2009 to win the Kentucky Oaks (Friday’s race for three year-old fillies) and the Kentucky Derby (for any three year-old) in the same weekend. 

It’s a near impossible accomplishment: To win a race with 14 starters Friday, and one with 20 starters Saturday. The simple math says you win the Oaks around 6% of the time, and the Derby 5% of the time.

To do both the same weekend with near-perfect rides is incredible.  His horses — Thorpedo Anna on Friday and Mystik Dan on Saturday — have different running styles, and the races set up differently. 

I saw Brian a few times this week, and he was less casual than usual.  Perhaps I should’ve known he was locked in.

McPeek goes against grain.

Outside looking in, horse racing is about, well, the racing.  But within the ecosystem of racing, it’s the breeding that pays the bills. 

In the modern game, stud fees are the economic engine for the large outfits.  Stallions can fetch anywhere from $50,000 per foal to $250,000 — per baby.  No training, no races, no travel. It’s easy to see why everyone shoots for the breeding rights and money.

But trainer Kenny McPeek ran against fields full of horses bred by those most expensive horses — and swept the weekend.  Thorpedo Anna, who won the Oaks, was bred for $5,000; Mystik Dan was bred for $10,000. 

Not a bad weekend at the office.

McPeek has a “why not us” mentality, and it’s great for horse racing.  He runs his horses into shape, rather than training them into it. 

He’s one of the most difficult trainers to handicap because he’s willing to take chances in spots and it doesn’t always work out.  He doesn’t care about his percentages — and after this weekend — he’ll never have to. 

Owners will seek him out after what was an incredible weekend.

The last trainer to sweep the Oaks-Derby double?  Ben Jones, one of the finest thoroughbred trainers ever, in 1952.  It’s been a minute.  And it’s Hall-of-Fame stuff.

Japanese develop thoroughbred winners

The most important outcome of the weekend might’ve been the showing by the two Japanese starters in the field: Forever Young, who was part of that three-way photo finish, and the unheralded T O Password finished an impressive fifth in his third-ever start.  

The Japanese breeders have burst onto the international racing scene in recent years and the sport is considerably better for it.  I was skeptical of their chances in the race and became even more skeptical after a candid conversation with “Keiba” Kate Hunter, who acts as an American-born liaison for the Japanese when they ship to the U.S.  

Forever Young and T O Password were both required by quarantine rules to stay in a barn set apart from other horses. There is a specific strain of a sexually-transmitted horse disease not generally found in the American horse population. 

Their barn is far from the track, and surrounded by concrete, as horses are not usually there for very long before being checked and cleared by a vet to join the other horses at the track.

But their stay there was long, and to even stretch their legs, they had to walk to the track.  They used the mile chute at Churchill to do figure eights to stretch their legs before going for their daily jogs around the track. 

After hearing Kate describe this is detail (episode here), I was convinced the extra everything was going to be too much on an impediment for either horse to win.  

We have a playful segment on my show Rabaut & Co. called “Where Louie Was Wrong,” and I was totally wrong here — and happy to be.  May the Japanese breeders continue to embrace horse racing, and make the entire planet have to improve alongside them.

No changes on big race days.

After the race, there was much consternation on X (Twitter for those of us old-timers) about the stretch duel between Forever Young, who finished third, and Sierra Leone, who rallied late to finish second.  There are photos of the jockeys pressing against other horses, the lanes not being adhered to, the whole thing. 

Recall the 2019 Kentucky Derby, and the immense delay in taking down the winner in Maximum Security.  That decision took more than 20 minutes and looking back it was almost certainly because they didn’t want to change the outcome of a race in front of more than 15 million TV viewers. 

But it appears by most measures that there was no looking at this one as Mystik Dan wasn’t involved.  In other races, they may have looked at it longer, but they didn’t in this one. 

Also, the lack of objection from the jockey probably gave the stewards a reason to not add to the drama of that photo finish.

Derby is over – now what?

I have no voice today, after 14 hours of live radio outdoors and over 10 hours per day over a week and a half at the track.  I got my steps in, humidity and all.

The Preakness is up next.   My favorite race not in Louisville, the easiest to cover as a media dude, an underrated city in Baltimore.  We’ll have full coverage here at the Trib and on the pod, of course.

You can always email me at TSThorseracing@gmail.com.  I’ll do a mailbag later this week.

Now, time to set down those Juleps and pick up the Black Eyed Susans.  On to Old Hilltop!