The injury was a blow to trainer Bob Baffert and to the quality of the Derby field. Hoppertunity had run well against Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, and that was without an aggressive push from jockey Mike Smith. Many observers believed he was peaking just in time for Kentucky.
With the scratch, Pablo Del Monte joined the field of 20 for Saturday’s race, and Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia bumped Wicked Strong to a 6-1 second choice. The odds also dropped for Candy Boy, Intense Holiday, Tapiture, Danza and Vicar’s in Trouble. With Pablo Del Monte slotting at post 20, the horses that drew posts 12 through 20 each moved inside a spot.
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Baffert said his horse took a few uncomfortable steps Wednesday after his morning workout on the track. He said Hoppertunity looked fine later in the day. But come Thursday morning, Baffert again noticed something amiss with the colt’s stride.
“When he turned, he was a little bit off,” Baffert said. “He still looks good. He warmed out of it, but there’s something pinching him or biting him on that foot.”
Baffert said a veterinarian examined Hoppertunity and found no obvious injury. But the trainer’s gut told him to pull the plug.
“The horse is fine,” he said. “It’s not like he came up with a career-ending injury.”
Smith said he was disappointed but praised Baffert’s caution. “I’d rather lose it this way than have something happen on the racetrack,” the Hall of Fame jockey said. “Bob does right by his horses.”
He added that he was one of many who expected a breakout showing from Hoppertunity at Churchill Downs.
“I think we all kind of could see that,” Smith said. “He was doing incredible, really coming around at the right time. He seemed to flourish over this racetrack, which is a plus and a half. It’s too bad but you know what, we’re all alive.”
Baffert also had high hopes. “I think Hoppertunity was a good chance because of the distance,” he said. “He didn’t have any distance limitations, and he was doing really well. It’s part of the game. That’s why I have heart attacks.”
Baffert said Hoppertunity will be scanned Friday to eliminate concerns over any unseen injury. But he hopes to have the colt ready for the Preakness Stakes on May 17.
“I need a few more days working on the foot,” he said wistfully. “And I don’t have it.”
The scratch leaves Baffert, who has trained three Derby winners, with only one horse in the field — Chitu.
“He’s fast,” the trainer said. “He’ll take it as far as he can. I think he’ll probably be on the lead.”
New entry may not run
Though Pablo Del Monte has a spot in the Kentucky Derby after Hoppertunity’s scratch, his connections might opt against running him because of a difficult No. 20 post position.
They had planned to point him toward the Preakness before the unexpected Derby shot arose.
“It’s amazing to have the opportunity to run,” said trainer and part-owner Wesley Ward. “With my 25 percent, there is nothing I’d love better, with a horse that I bred, than to run. But I have to go with what my partners want to do, and respect it.”
They have until 9 a.m. Friday to decide. If Pablo Del Monte runs, he would be a 50-1 morning-line long shot. In his last race on April 12, he finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes.