LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the past 12 months, the apparent winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby lost his title and then his life, horse racing’s most famous trainer was barred from the sport’s biggest day, and a major horse-doping trial involving more than two dozen people began in federal court.
It’s enough to leave people like Ryan Dickey feeling disillusioned.
“I don’t play as much as I used to,” said Dickey, a handicapper, horse owner and writer in Las Vegas. “I don’t handicap the races as often as I used to and there are some tracks that I won’t play at all.”
But even after a tumultuous 12 months for the sport of kings, Dickey said he’s geared up for the first Saturday in May.
“I’m excited for it every year, ever since I was a little kid,” Dickey said. He suspects casual Kentucky Derby fans are too.
“I don’t think they’re going to care too much,” about the scandals, he said.
Several other racing world insiders shared similar sentiments about the Derby’s ability to capture the public’s attention despite the sport’s deep-seated problems and the questions raised around it in recent months. Those questions include: “Does the Kentucky Derby still matter?,” posed on the front page of the Lexington Herald-Leader this weekend, and, “Is Horse Racing’s Legitimacy At Stake?,” the subject of a Louisville Forum debate last month.
For one week at least, the pomp and pageantry of the Kentucky Derby appears poised to overshadow the existential angst within the racing world.
“I do not believe there will be a hangover from last year’s Derby,” said Aaron Halterman, who handicaps races at RacingDudes.com. “I don’t see this Kentucky Derby being much different from any other year.”
Except, of course, that Bob Baffert won’t be there. Churchill Downs suspended the California-based trainer for two years last summer because of Medina Spirit, who finished first at the 147th Derby, failing a drug test. In December, Medina Spirit dropped dead at Santa Anita, which Dickey said will cast a “pall” over Saturday’s festivities.
Michael Kipness, a veteran handicapper who goes by The Wizard, said the trouble surrounding Medina Spirit and Baffert has affected the perception of the sport for some people.
“When you’re not an everyday follower of the game, you’re going to take an incident like that and run with it [and assume] that the game is crooked and fixed and full of drugs and all that,” he said.
He admitted that there are problems with horse racing. “I think the industry has done a very poor job in cleaning up the stuff that they should clean up,” he said. But Kipness insisted that the biggest problem is not people like Baffert, who he called a “real horseman” and a “great trainer,” but a tangled web of rules and regulations across the horses racing states.
Still, even if there is a widespread perception that horse racing is plagued by scandal, he has little doubt that people will look past it Saturday. The casual fans appreciate the spectacle, he said, and the hardcore fans will be able to look past the scandals, at least for the moment.
“What happened last year — for one race, one day — it’s put in the back of your head,” he said. And if the 148th Kentucky Derby is run without incident, what happened last year “will be history.”