After weeks of relative tranquility, the field for Saturday's Kentucky Derby has been hit by the injury bug and the prospect of nasty weather.
With the morning-line favorite, Omaha Beach, already ruled out of the race with a throat problem, Haikal's readiness was thrown into question Thursday as trainer Kiaran McLaughlin reported the colt has an abscess in his left front foot. McLaughlin said Haikal, a Shadwell Stable homebred son of Daaher, was being treated with Epsom salts.
"The shoe is off and we're soaking and icing it," McLaughlin said, adding that if the Grade III Withers Stakes winner can train Friday, he will run Saturday. If not, he is out of the Derby. "It's just a terrible thing."
The Churchill Downs backstretch was still shaken by the scratch of Omaha Beach, but trainer Richard Mandella bravely met with the media to address the entrapped epiglottis that ended his Triple Crown hopes. Omaha Beach was scheduled for the minor corrective surgery Friday and will return to racing, but not until summer.
"You couldn't have asked a horse to train any better or looked any better this whole period we've been here," said Mandella, who was seeking his first Kentucky Derby victory. "You've all seen it. He galloped yesterday. If you didn't look up his nose with a scope, you wouldn't know anything is wrong.
"But (if he had run in the Derby) I'm sure by the time he'd hit the quarter pole, he would know it was there, and it would be a terrible feeling. As bad as it felt yesterday, it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him. So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next step.
"It just seemed like everything was so in line. In fact, I actually had a thought, 'Is this too perfect?' Because nothing's that perfect. And we found out what wasn't. But it was very devastating."
Trainer Bob Baffert, whose three starters became the favorites for the 145th Derby when Omaha Beach was ruled out, sympathized with Mandella and reflected on the nature of the sport.
"I felt horrible for him because I know what can happen," Baffert said. "We're all competitors, but at the same time we wanted to see each other do well.
"He's my neighbor (on the Santa Anita backstretch) and I know what it meant to him. The stars were lining up, everything was going smooth. That's why when everyone is like, 'You don't seem that excited,' it's because I know that this can happen. We're all on pins and needles the whole way. Until I get that saddle on them and throw the jockey up, that's when my job is done."
All three Baffert starters went through normal morning exercise Thursday. Game Winner now is the 9-2 morning-line favorite, while Roadster and Improbable are both at 5-1.
Bodexpress, who drew into the race with Omaha Beach's scratch, did the complete tour of the facility Thursday morning. The runner-up in the Grade I Florida Derby visited the starting gate, schooled in the paddock and galloped 1 1/2 miles.
Trainer Gustavo Delgado said he sent Bodexpress from South Florida to Churchill Downs without a guaranteed spot in the Derby because, "You only have one chance. ... This horse is a good horse and he is doing very, very good."
Still, Bodexpress has yet to win a race after five starts.
The weatherman continues to rain on the Kentucky Derby parade, with forecasts calling for thunderstorms and thundershowers Friday and a 90 percent chance of rain on Derby Day. Last year's Derby was run amid an historic, torrential downpour.
While it may seem like it, all the 3-year-old action this weekend is not at Churchill Downs.
Saturday's $300,000 Oaklawn Invitational for 3-year-olds in Arkansas bears watching in its own right and also as a potential springboard for the Preakness.
The well-matched field of 11 features several horses previously on the Triple Crown trail, including Grade II Holy Bull Stakes winner Harvey Wallbanger, Crescent City Derby winner Shang and Arkansas Derby winner fourth Laughing Fox.
The Kentucky Oaks
While the Derby looks like a relatively wide-open affair, Friday's $1.25 million Grade I Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies boasts a strong favorite in Bellafina. The Quality Road filly has won six of eight starts, three of the wins in Grade I events and is riding a three-race winning streak as she returns to Churchill Downs, which is the site of her only off-the-board finish, a fourth-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall.
The Oaks has a full field of 14. Bellafinia is 2-1 on Battaglia's morning line, Restless Rider and Champagne Anyone are co-second choices at 6-1.
Trainer Simon Callaghan, his arm in a sling after he dislocated his shoulder Wednesday in a fall, said Bellafina is doing well. Although all of her eight previous starts have been over fast tracks, Callaghan said he is not troubled by the prospect of wet weather and an off track on Friday.
"I think she'll be OK," he said. "The Quality Roads all seem to do well on wet tracks. I'm not that worried about it."