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Nervous tension builds before Kentucky Derby; King Guillermo scratched

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Nervous tension builds before Kentucky Derby; King Guillermo scratched
Kentucky Derby hopeful King Guillermo (L) walks a muddy track during a workout Tuesday before he was scratched two days later from the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 3 (UPI) -- Churchill Downs settled into its typical, nervous waiting pattern Thursday with the major players in the 146th Kentucky Derby crossing fingers their horses stay healthy for two more days and hoping that outside events won't add another twist to an already bizarre year.

Hope was in vain for long-shot contender King Guillermo, who was withdrawn Thursday afternoon after spiking a fever.

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With rain still falling during training hours, most of the remaining 17 contenders just jogged and galloped over the slop, which again prevented the odds-on favorite, Tiz the Law, from doing any serious work.

King Guillermo's trainer, Juan Carlos Avila, reported his colt developed a fever at the most inopportune time.

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"To race in a race like the Derby, we need him at 100 percent," Avila said. "We aren't going to be able to demonstrate how good he is like this. I think we are going to have plenty of time to show his quality. He's going to be a great horse, and everybody knows we have to take care of the horse first."

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Avila said he will try to get King Guillermo ready for next month's Preakness Stakes, which this year is the final leg of the Triple Crown.

With King Guillermo not starting, the field shrinks to 17. Two inside slots and one on the outside of the new 20-stall starting gate will be left open, Churchill Downs officials said.

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There's a long history of well-regarded Derby contenders meeting with misfortune in the days leading up to the race.

Omaha Beach was the morning-line favorite before being scratched days before the 2019 Derby. The same with I Want Revenge in 2009. In 1992, A.P. Indy was scratched the morning of the race with a bruised foot.

This year's favorite, Tiz the Law, seemed in fine fettle with two days to go, although trainer Barclay Tagg for the second straight day fretted about the weather -- which is scheduled to improve quickly and sharply for Friday and Saturday.

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"I wish I could have done more with him, but couldn't because we've had two days of hard rain," Tagg said after Tiz the Law had an easy, 2-miles gallop under exercise rider Heather Smullen. "He'll gallop tomorrow and he'll school in the paddock today during the fourth race."

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Tiz the Law drew post position No. 17 for the Derby -- a number no winner has ever worn. The second and third favorites, Honor A.P. and Authentic, drew No. 16 and No. 18, respectively.

Having the top three draw the outside stalls was only the latest wrinkle in this oddest of years. The Derby was delayed four months from its normal first Saturday in May. Then, after a long series of twists and turns, Churchill Downs finally just weeks ago gave up on plans to allow fans to watch the race on site because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

While there won't be paying customers, there will be protesters near the historic track. Louisville has seen sporadic demonstrations since the death in May of Breonna Taylor and news reports indicate organizers plan to use the Derby as a setting for further action.

Tagg said on a media conference call Aug. 27 that he is "very concerned" that protests could have an impact on racing at Churchill Downs. "I don't want my people hurt. I don't want myself hurt. I don't want the horse hurt, and the world is crazy right now. And hopefully we can pull it off without something disastrous happening."

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On the same call, Art Collector's owner, Bruce Lunsford, a former Churchill Downs director, said track management has "done a superb job of staying out of the spotlight of controversy ... and I think it's going to be a good day."

Churchill Downs spokeswoman Tonya Abeln told Blood-Horse early in the week discussions continued about whether to continue the century-old tradition of playing "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses step onto the track for the Derby. The Stephen Foster classic is a beloved part of the experience for racing fans but its racial message is questionable.

Friday's festivities at Churchill Downs center around the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks -- the fillies-only equivalent of the Derby and a hugely important race in its own right for breeders and owners.

The clear favorites in a field of nine are Gamine, the even-money pick on the morning line, and Swiss Skydiver, posted at 8-5.

Gamine, a daughter of the outstanding sire Into Mischief, has never lost in four starts for trainer Bob Baffert. She was, however, disqualified from victory in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park in May when trace elements of lidocaine, a numbing agent, were found in her post-race sample.

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Gamine later went on to win the Grade I Acorn at Belmont Park by 18 3/4 lengths in stakes-record time and backed that up with a 7-lengths win in the Grade I Test at Saratoga. She has never raced farther than 1 mile and adds another eighth for Saturday's event.

Swiss Skydiver has won four of her last five starts, losing only when she finished second to Art Collector in the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland.

Art Collector would have been among the Kentucky Derby favorites, but was ruled out Tuesday with a minor injury. Swiss Skydiver, a daughter of Daredevil, returned to fillies-only races, winning the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga on Aug. 15, going 1 1/4 miles with ease.

Both Gamine and Swiss Skydiver like to run freely. It will be up to jockeys John Velazquez and Tyler Gaffalione, respectively, to make sure they don't burn each other out in a speed duel and open the way for a closer.

"Pace is going to be very important," Baffert said Thursday morning in front of his Churchill Downs barn bearing the plaques commemorating past Oaks winners Abel Tasman and Plum Pretty.

"I've already talked to Johnny and he's got a sort of a game plan. At the end of the day, you find out if you can go that far."

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Four other important graded stakes support the Oaks on the Friday program.

Authentic wins Kentucky Derby in race without spectators

Jockey John Velazquez (L) celebrates with trainer Bob Baffert after their horse Authentic won the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. It was Baffert's sixth Derby win. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

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