Kentucky Oaks Horse Racing

Horses come off the track after a morning workout at Churchill Downs on Friday in Louisville, Ky. The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday.

On Saturday, as the sun begins to set behind the rolling hills in Kentucky, glasses of mint juleps will be raised across the country to the traditional singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" for the running of the 145th Kentucky Derby.

The Derby will showcase the best in horse racing — the most successful jockeys; current and future Hall of Fame trainers; wealthy owners and of course, the horses. Let's not forget the stars of the show, who represent the best of their 3-year-old generation. All, it seems, is the same for horse racing's grandest and most watched event.

But all is not right with horse racing. Not by a long shot. Saturday's run for the roses will be a struggling industry's attempt to paint over and hide the underlying issues that need to be addressed by racing's fractured leadership groups to ensure the future of horse racing.

Earlier this year, 23 horses died at Santa Anita Park during a three-month period while running or training at the track. Twenty-one died during a 10-week period before the track was closed for a period of inspection. Those numbers are startling because in 2017, there were "only" 20 fatalities at Santa Anita.

The rise in deaths at one of America's most historic tracks has led to heightened awareness by the public, politicians and by PETA — the animal rights group that wants to banish racing.

The racing industry has responded with new rules for reduced medication, funding for track safety programs and research at leading universities, and closer inspection of horses by independent veterinarians before approving for training or racing.

All of these are positive steps forward for an industry that has been brought down by opposing factions pushing self-serving agendas that do not improve the sport or increase the fan base. The factions representing owners, breeders and racetracks are intent on protecting their share of the dwindling revenue pie — even if it is at the expense of the industry as a whole.

Horse racing is at a tipping point.

To be sure, the Kentucky Derby will always run. But future races that lead up to the running of the Derby are not so certain unless industry leaders embrace the fact that societal opinions on the treatment of animals — horses included — have changed.

The politicians in charge are aware of this, even if industry leadership is not. Horse racing must deal directly with the issue of safety and aftercare for the heroes of the sport — the horses — or else face the prospect of a shrinking fan base and revenue.

The horses in this year's Kentucky Derby are taken care of and tended to on a nearly-24-hour basis — like 99.9% of horses at every track. Horses are walked, brushed, fed, bathed, exercised and, yes, petted constantly by their caretakers. They are bred to run fast and compete, as they will do in this year's Derby.

The horses in the Derby are led by a trio of Bob Baffert trainees — Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable.

Baffert is the Nick Saban and Bill Belichick of horse racing. He has won the Derby five times and is one short of the all-time record held by Ben Jones, the famed trainer for storied Calumet Farms. It would not be a shock if Baffert gets his sixth win Saturday.

Others will try to hold off the Baffert trio. One of those is this year's Louisiana Derby winner, By My Standards. Twenty-three years have passed since Grindstone pulled off the Louisiana-Kentucky Derby double, and By My Standards is my pick to do it this year.

A two-time winner trained by Bret Calhoun and owned by Allied Racing, Standards has come to hand quickly winning two in a row. No horse has trained better during the three weeks of prep leading up to the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby.

Another horse who hails from a top barn is Tacitus. A Juddmonte Farm homebred and trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, Tacitus won the Wood Memorial in New York, and a victory would give his trainer his first Derby win.

Of the three Baffert trainees, look for Improbable to run the best. He won over the Churchill Downs track last fall and can handle what is expected to be a wet track — and he is, after all, trained by Baffert. Like it or not, Saban, Belichick and Baffert seem to win the big ones every year.

This year, here's hoping to a safely run Derby with an outcome that's a bit different than the past six years, when favorites crossed the line first.

Good luck, and may they all come home safely.

My selections for Kentucky Derby:

By My Standards

Improbable

Tacitus