Horse racing on slow track with efforts to address diversity

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Horse racing returns to Kentucky this weekend for another signature event it hopes will garner the attention of a mainstream audience.

While it wants to be considered among North America’s major sports, the industry has so far lagged behind others in terms of how it is actively addressing systemic racism concerns during a nationwide reckoning on the issue. Owners Greg Harbut and Ray Daniels hope the Breeders’ Cup signals the start of a real conversation in horse racing, but they aren’t waiting around for change in an industry they feel has been largely tone-deaf due to a lack of prominent Black stakeholders in place to guide the sport during turbulent times.

“Conversations are beginning, but at this stage, that’s all we’re receiving is audio,” said Harbut, who co-owns Kentucky Derby horse Necker Island and is co-founder along with Daniels of an organization aimed at increasing minority involvement in racing. “We need some video to match the audio. When that happens, I think you’ll see things change. But the industry has to decide where it’s at now. Does it really want to see change?”

Unlike golf using the springboard of Tiger Woods’ dominance to champion diversity initiatives, tennis diversifying its leadership group and seeing an influx of players since Venus and Serena Williams burst on to the scene or the National Hockey League hiring Kim Davis as executive vice president to oversee social impact, horse racing has been slow to market to, attract and hire minorities outside of jobs on the backstretch and as jockeys.

“They have kind of hid from the problem,” Daniels said. “A lot of organizations feel as long as it’s not happening inside my organization, it’s probably not a place for me to comment or a place for me to take a stand.”

By Derby week in September, there was an acknowledgement that the sport is “not doing enough quickly enough” and has “not successfully created an environment in which everyone feels welcome or included.” Churchill Downs said it’s “committed to taking real, concrete action to address institutional roadblocks to progress and playing our part in advancing the changes America so desperately needs.”

Still, being slow to change isn’t hurting the sport financially.

Even during the pandemic that has emptied grandstands, business is thriving, with record money being wagered all over the country, a trend that’s expected to continue Friday and Saturday with 14 Breeders’ Cup world championship races at Keeneland worth $28 million.

But horse racing has been unable to bring in fresh faces with no previous connection to the sport, especially minorities. By founding the Ed Brown Society named for the 19th century Black trainer, Harbut and Daniels hope they can create a pipeline for Black executives and sprout a generation of new fans to diversify a crowd that’s predominantly white on days without big races.

“When you go to the track, you see a 98, 97% really Caucasian audience or crowd that is partaking in the sport,” Daniels said. “When you do have a chance to bring other cultures to the track, they are quite shocked that this is not something that the industry is working on across the whole country.”

Some of the few people of color in positions of influence – including Jason Wilson, president and CEO of stats site Equibase, and Alicia Hughes, director of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association – struggle to effect change in a stubborn sport.

Wilson learned early that endorsing diversity means nothing without policies and procedures to address it. While much of horse racing was silent in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, Hughes helped craft the NTRA’s statement saying, “The systemic racism that has poisoned our country cannot be allowed to inflict its pain on one more generation” and pushed for more actions.

“Racing is kind of just waking up to the fact that it could do more and it needs to kind of do more,” Wilson said.

Daniels believes that change has to start from the top and trickle down, a struggle because horse racing has no central governing body and therefore no national marketing effort outside major events. But Daniels and other Black members of the horse racing community have started some conversations and reported largely positive experiences.

“Whenever you have a small number of a certain group, there really is no issue, per se, because nobody else feels threatened,” Wilson said. “We’re not even at the point where there are enough people where the system’s going to really just have a true issue.”

One of the few black, U.S.-born jockeys on the circuit, Kendrick Carmouche also has experienced the best of the sport, heartened by the widespread response when he broke his right leg last year. After kneeling with fellow jockeys in the paddock before the first race when racing returned to New York over the summer, he understands actions like those are done for him because not many in the industry can empathize.

“I think they understand what’s going on, but they don’t want to be publicly out there with it,” Carmouche said. “A lot of people, if they don’t believe in it, they’d rather not set their mind up to think that way.”

Harbut has experienced it but hopes one day he will be able go to a turf club or enter a suite without worrying about having to explain he’s not lost or being asked if needs directions – that “this is actually where you belong.”

“Not that you need anything special done,” he said. “You just want to be treated like a regular person.”

Florida Derby 2023: How to watch, what to know ahead of race day

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The stakes are high on the road to the Kentucky Derby, as a field of 12 will vie for $1 million and precious qualifying points at the Curlin Florida Derby on Saturday, April 1 on  CNBC and Peacock. The winner of the race will receive 100 of these points with the runner-up getting 40, the third-place runner receiving 30, the fourth-place finisher receiving 20 and the fifth-place horse receiving 10.

NBC Sports has you covered with everything you need to know about Saturday’s race, which will get underway Saturday at 6 p.m. EST, airing on CNBC and streaming on Peacock. 

Who will be racing at the Florida Derby?

  • Jungfrau
    • Bill Mott (trainer), Paco Lopez (jockey)
  • West Coast Cowboy
    • Saffie Joseph Jr. (trainer), Sonny Leon (jockey)
  • Shaq Diesel
    • Renaldo Richards (trainer), Miguel Vasquez (jockey)
  • Mage
    • Gustavo Delgado (trainer), Luis Saez (jockey)
  • Mr. Peeks
    • Saffie Joseph Jr. (trainer), Edwin Gonzalez (jockey)
  • Nautical Star
    • Saffie Joseph Jr. (trainer), Leonel Reyes (jockey)
  • II Miracolo
    • Antonio Sano (trainer), Jesus Rios (jockey)
  • Mr. Ripple
    • Saffie Joseph Jr. (trainer), Edgard Zayas (jockey)
  • Cyclone Mischief
    • Dale Romans (trainer), Javier Castellano (jockey)
  • Fort Bragg
    • Tim Yakteen (trainer), Joel Rosario (jockey)
  • Forte
    • Todd Pletcher (trainer), Irad Ortiz Jr. (jockey)
  • Dubyuhnell
    • Danny Gargan (trainer), Jose Ortiz (jockey)

Who is the favorite for the Florida Derby?

All eyes will be on the reigning two-year-old champion Forte come Saturday, who has earned 90 points to date and won five of his six career starts. His 2023 campaign got off to a quick start after taking the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream by 4 1/2 lengths on March 4 in his 3-year-old debut. His other recent wins include triumphs at the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The 4/5 morning line favorite and trainer Todd Pletcher, however, will have some obstacles in the way as they look to continue the charge to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. As Pletcher looks to extend his streak to a record-setting seven wins, he’ll need Forte to overcome a post position 11 at Gulfstream Park.

Horses who have drawn post position 11 at the Florida Derby distance of 1 1/8 miles since Gulfstream was reconfigured in 2006 have come away with the crown a mere 2 of 50 times.

RELATED: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race

What should I look for come race day?

The unlucky post position for the favorite Forte opens the door for other contenders, such as Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief.

Fort Bragg, who was initially slated to race at last weekend’s Sunland Derby before re-routing to Gulfstream, will be making his second start for Tim Yakteen. The $700,000 purchase is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Fountain of Youth on March 4 and is 5-1 on the morning line for Florida under Forte.

RELATED: Arabian Knight off Kentucky Derby trail; will return later

Not far behind, however, is Cyclone Mischief, who displayed an encouraging performance at the Fountain of Youth, holding a lead for the first mile before falling to third. The three-year-old and his trainer, Dale Romans, will look to cause a bit more havoc at Gulfstream and earn valuable points to keep the hopes for Louisville alive.

Others to keep an eye on come race time include Mage, who has a total of 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points and West Coast Cowboy, who currently sits with six.

RELATED: Kingsbarns has a chance to improve before the Kentucky Derby

How can I watch the Florida Derby?

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6 p.m. EST
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 2023 Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC Sports and Peacock.

For more horse racing coverage and the latest on the road to the Kentucky Derby, visit nbcsports.com.

Road to the Kentucky Derby: Forte seems dominant ahead of Florida Derby prep race

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The numbers speak for themselves. Horses trained by Todd Pletcher have earned more purse money (over $455 million) than those trained by any other person in the history of thoroughbred racing. He has won with an impressive 23% of his starters, and 52% have finished first, second or third.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, however, Pletcher becomes a mere mortal. From 62 career starters, he has won the race twice, with two seconds, and four horses who finished 3rd. Many of Pletcher’s Derby horses were longshots who were in the race primarily so their owners could have a horse in America’s biggest race. His two Derby winners, while they were reasonably backed at the windows, were far from odds-on favorites. When Super Saver won in 2010, he paid $18.00 for a $2 win ticket. Always Dreaming, his 2017 winner, was a very lukewarm favorite who returned $11.40 to win.  Many racing fans are used to seeing Pletcher’s horses win at short odds, primarily in New York and Florida. They might be shocked to find out that when Always Dreaming won the 2017 Derby, he was the shortest-odds horse that Pletcher had ever saddled in the Kentucky Derby, despite having odds just under 5-1.

RELATED: Kingsbarns goes wire-to-wire in Louisiana Derby

This Saturday, he will saddle Forte in the Florida Derby. Forte will enter the race on a four-race win streak, with those wins coming in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He is a 4/5 morning line favorite, and if he wins the race, he should move forward to Louisville as a very strong favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Clearly, he would be the shortest-priced horse Pletcher has ever had in the race, but that almost wasn’t the case.

In 2010, we know that Pletcher scored a mild upset in the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver. He was definitely not the best three-year-old in Pletcher’s barn. That year, he had a horse named Eskendereya, who seemed as unbeatable as Forte does now. He was set to enter the Derby off a three-race win streak. That streak included an 8 ½ length victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and a 9 ¾ length win in the Wood Memorial. The Pletcher barn was devastated when Eskendereya suffered a career-ending leg injury in training one week before the Kentucky Derby. So, instead of saddling the big favorite in the race, he took his shot with four other horses. As the chart tells us, Super Saver benefitted from a rail-skimming ride by Calvin Borel and gave Pletcher his first Derby winner.

As far as I am concerned, any discussion of Forte and the Florida Derby should begin with the concept of professionalism in a racehorse. In one respect you can call him more professional than (dare I say?) Secretariat. Big Red was brilliant, and he showed the ability to win on the engine and from off the pace. Forte’s three career races around two turns, however, are a virtual carbon copy of each other.

As a two-year-old, in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, he was in fifth place after six furlongs, sitting 2 ½ lengths off the lead, and he went on to win by a neck. That race set him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Juvenile, he was again in fifth after six furlongs, sitting four lengths off the lead before he went on to win by 1 ½ lengths. It’s been said that race horses mature the most between ages two and three, and Forte’s only race this year showed that maturity. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, he was in fourth after six furlongs, sitting about two lengths off the lead, and then he blew by the field, going on to win by 4 ½ lengths.

RELATED: Arabian Knight off Kentucky Derby trail; will return later

This concept of professionalism in a racehorse is based in part on how well the game plan of the trainer is executed by the horse. Forte is a horse that has clearly used his fast cruising speed and his ability to relax off the pace to his advantage. Looking at those three wins he posted around two turns, they show that Forte’s natural ability allows him to idle like a Cadillac behind front-runners, and he has a growing ability to pass his competition on the far turn and power through the stretch on his way to victory. The Pletcher game plan, nurtured through the experience of 62 starts in America’s most important race, has been very convincing thus far.

Working in Forte’s favor even more is the fact that there are several horses in the race who tend to run on the front end, which should set up jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. to make Forte’s signature move to the lead as the front-runners start to tire. Skeptics might point to Forte’s journey from the #11 post as a reason to think he might have a problem here, but the fact that he relaxes in races and has a high cruising speed should allow Ortiz to get a mid-pack position to pounce from.

As for the rest of the field, the two most likely to finish underneath Forte in exotic wagers are Fort Bragg and Cyclone Mischief. Fort Bragg is a horse who sold for $700,000 as a yearling. He was formerly trained by Bob Baffert and has been transferred to the care of Tim Yakteen. He should be near the front end early and is likely to have the class to last longer that some of the other forwardly-placed runners.  Another who has a good chance to hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Cyclone Mischief. He has raced against some of the top horses of his age group and was third to Forte in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by nearly 6 lengths. Although he was on the lead in that race, I expect him to sit a couple of lengths off the pace here. There are two longer-priced entries here that could hit the board to fill out some tickets. They are the lightly-raced Mage (fourth in the Fountain of Youth with a troubled trip) and West Coast Cowboy, who has tried hard in all three career races and is 20-1 on the morning line.

RELATED: Two Phil’s dominates Jeff Ruby Steaks

For those who think they might be able to beat Forte, consider Todd Pletcher’s record in the Florida Derby. He is the leading trainer in the history of the race with six wins, and five of those have been in the last nine years.

If there is a theme to the Derby prep season thus far, it is Pletcher, Pletcher, Pletcher. In addition to Forte, he trains Kingsbarns, the front-running winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice. Tapit Trice, who will run in the Blue Grass Stakes on NBC a week from Saturday, is an intriguing horse who won the Tampa Bay Derby with come-from-behind style. As talented as Forte is, we don’t know how talented Tapit Trice can be, as he seems to mature more with each start. At Tampa Bay, he was eighth in the middle of the stretch and got home to win by an easy two lengths. He is an 8-1 second choice in the most recent Derby futures pool, with Forte favored at 3-1.

It is always fascinating when the early Derby favorite has his final prep race. We’ll have to sit back and watch on Saturday to determine whether Forte will continue his dominance or if he will hit a bump in the road. His talent and his ability to duplicate his running style from race to race lead me to think that his growth and maturity will continue to be on display in the Florida Derby, and he’ll advance to Kentucky a huge favorite for America’s biggest race.

How to Watch the Florida Derby

  • Date: Saturday, April 1st
  • Time: 6pm ET
  • TV Network: CNBC
  • Streaming: Peacock

When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?

The 149th Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC and Peacock.