Shades of gray rare among Kentucky Derby favorites, winners

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Chris Goodlett has walked around Churchill Downs many times since joining the Kentucky Derby Museum and heard admiring fans say to each other, “Oh, look at that beautiful gray horse.”

Not many of those remarks have come while looking at the winner’s circle after the Derby.

Essential Quality is expected to be the first gray horse to go off as the Kentucky Derby favorite in 25 years. A gray horse hasn’t won the Derby since Giacomo in 2005, and only eight grays have won it since 1930.

According to historians and experts, there are just fewer gray horses compared to more traditional chestnut, bay, brown and black horses, and therefore fewer chances to win the sport’s biggest race.

“That genetic determinant of the gray color is just not at a high enough frequency in the thoroughbred population,” said Dr. James MacLeod, professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. “There’s no functional connection between the single-gene determinant of gray coat color and the genes associated with elite athletic performance in thoroughbred racehorses.”

Gray does belong in the spectrum of colors for elite racehorses over the past century, especially in recent decades. Silver Charm won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1997 before falling short in the Belmont, and Winning Colors in 1988 remains the most recent filly to win the Derby.

Success has just been rare, with 110 grays running in the Derby over the past 90 years and 7.3% winning it. Goodlett can’t say how that compares to horses of other colors, which have won the other 82 most recent incarnations of the race.

“There’s not a lot of gray stallions and there’s not a lot of gray mares,” National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame communications director Brien Bouyea said. “A lot of the traditional breeding, I don’t think anybody has anything against gray horses when it comes to breeding. There just haven’t been a lot of stallions out there that have carried that genetic along.”

Essential Quality could be on the leading edge of the next generation of speedy grays thanks to his sire, Tapit, who has fathered some strong horses so far and expected to produce more. Fellow Derby runner Soup and Sandwich also has Tapit lineage on his mother’s side.

“Tapit is one of the most successful sires in the world right now and has been for a while and is getting some extremely talented mares sent to him, so likely those foals are going to race at higher levels,” MacLeod said. “There’s probably more grays now racing at the top tier on average than a normal year, so we might see an increase in grays at the top tier over the next couple of decades.”

Grays could be even more prominent on the Triple Crown circuit in the coming years had it not been for the death of North American all-time money-earner Arrogate last June at age 7. A 2-year-old filly sired by Arrogate recently sold for $1 million, and Bouyea said some in the industry are eager to buy more of the champion horse’s babies based on pedigree.

While the gray gene that affects a horse’s color is dominant, meaning it only takes a copy from either the sire or dam for the foal to be gray, there’s no link between a horse’s appearance and running ability.

“All that needs to happen is you have to have a couple of really, really fast grays and then they get (bred) and then at least half of their foals are gray, ” Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine professor of pathology and genetics Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg said. “There’s few of them. And it just takes a really, really stellar one to change that, and a stellar one hasn’t come around.”

Essential Quality could be stellar, and his next task is trying to win the Derby as the favorite. Trainer Brad Cox isn’t worried what Essential Quality’s coat looks like, other than he’s draped in red roses Saturday night.

“He can’t change his color,” Cox said. “Tapit’s a world-class sire that is due a Kentucky Derby winner, and I’m hopeful that Essential Quality can be his first. It’s a talking point for some people, not me. It just doesn’t really go into the equation of what we’re trying. It doesn’t limit his ability being gray at all.”

It actually helps NBC announcer Larry Collmus distinguish between horses, especially in a crowded field of 20. Collmus expects to refer to at least Soup and Sandwich as “the gray” because of how light colored he is and knows he and Essential Quality will stand out in the race.

“You get a completely different picture,” he said. “I think people just get a kick out of seeing gray horses because they’re somewhat rare.”

Watch the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 1 from 12 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Full coverage is also available on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”