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At Churchill Downs, hopes that horse racing’s biggest day can wash away its grim winter

Fans at Churchill Downs watch the running of the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE — The kaleidoscope of Kentucky Derby weekend escaped year-long closets again Friday and flooded the Kentucky Oaks racing day long adored by Louisvillians. Women wore shoes of daredevil heights. Churchill Downs brimmed with attire of the greenest greens, the yellowest yellows and the pinkest of that official color, pink. Some dudes wore horse hats.

Soldiers and police patrolled here and there. Dogs sniffed beneath vehicles. An announcement near the gate prohibited bringing in a drone. (Okay.) People outside sold flip-flops and ponchos for $10 in case the rain returned — it didn’t — while others sold tickets and religion.

Everything seemed as ever.

Yet the 145th Kentucky Derby, the biggest annual event for a niche sport that takes its national attention in fleeting bites, might carry a tad more importance than usual. Saturday’s edition will be horse racing’s first nationally spotlighted event since the dreadful winter at Santa Anita Park, the California track where 23 horses died between Dec. 26 and March 31, forcing it to shut down racing briefly to investigate and make adjustments to the course’s dirt racing surface.

“You bet, yeah,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the 83-year-old winner of 14 Triple Crown races, said in the paddock Friday. “Nobody here is worried about that now. That’s history. This is the one that picks everybody up ­every year.”

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“For the sport, period,” said Mike Smith, the jockey who won the Triple Crown last year aboard Justify for trainer Bob Baffert and who rode McKinzie to victory Friday for Baffert in the Alysheba Stakes. “It’s always good for the sport. You know, good Lord willing, we’ll have a great, clean and safe day, all the horses will return happy and healthy and sound, and then our sport will thrive after that.”

As to whether this weekend constitutes something of a ­recovery, Smith said, “I think it will, definitely. Without a doubt. I know it will.”

It matters a tad more.

“It was so unusual and horrible, what happened at Santa Anita,” said Kenny Rice, in his 20th year broadcasting horse racing for NBC. “I don’t know anyone who remembers anything like it.”

Rice noted the number of contenders at Saturday’s Derby who race at California’s most famous track. “What’s interesting, even with all the problems Santa Anita had, Omaha Beach has scratched now, but coming into this Derby, probably the top four horses were all based in Santa Anita: Baffert’s three [Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster] and Omaha Beach,” he said. “Probably the best filly, Bellafina, running in the Oaks today, was based at Santa Anita. How strange is it for the catastrophe that they had out there with the fatalities, that they would have five horses of this crop come out of Santa Anita? And that’s kind of the interesting part about it all that really isn’t mentioned all that much.”

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Rice considered the various factors that might have contributed to the horse deaths, including a dirt track that some theorized suffered during unusually rainy winter weather, increasing stress on the animals’ legs.

“It’s important because there’s so much confusion about what all went on. And it’s easy to say it was just the track,” he continued. “I think there’s other things involved, not in a cryptic way, but maybe some of it’s medication. Maybe some of it’s breeding. A lot of the horses that broke down were in the morning during training, so it really isn’t an issue about using the whip or about race conditions. So there’s still that cloud of getting exactly what happened and trying to pinpoint that. Santa Anita and all of racing needs to know if they can find out exactly.”

The ongoing mystery at Santa Anita and scrutiny from lawmakers and animal rights advocates appeared to nudge the sport toward a new, transitional paradigm.

Yet nobody protested Friday at Churchill Downs, if two walks around the edges of the giant premises were any indication.

David Peele, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in an email that the organization held off on protesting this year because its senior vice president, Kathy Guillermo, “spoke at the recent Churchill Downs shareholder meeting and the company agreed to look at all the issues that she raised, so we are giving them a chance to take appropriate action.”

As Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, Churchill Downs has lost 43 thoroughbreds to racing injuries since 2016, or 2.42 per 1,000 starts, 50 percent higher than the national average. Some of the proposed changes at both Santa Anita and Churchill Downs involve a phasing-out of Lasix, the diuretic and anti-bleeding medication long used in horse racing. Others wondered whether the sport needed to change anything other than the Santa Anita track surface.

“Well, Santa Anita, they lost the racetrack, and they blamed everything — motherhood, apple pie, whips, Lasix — but the blame was [on] what they were standing on,” Lukas said. “You know, they just had to fix it. They got bad weather. To their credit, they tried to Band-Aid it, I think, a little bit, and if they had just taken a stand and said: ‘Look, we’re going to fix it, and racing will be back to normal. I think it will be all right.’ Instead, we got a lot of bad publicity, and we tried to, like with anything like that, throw the blame somewhere else.”

In the run-up to the ninth race Friday, a few hours before the feature Kentucky Oaks with its 2-year-old fillies, Baffert, 66, the trainer of the moment, came over to Lukas, who previously had a long turn as trainer of the moment. The friends, titans of the sport, chatted. Each had a horse in the race. Lukas would say he still gets excited about his 2-year-old crop, still gets a little pit in the stomach in pre-race.

Neither titan’s horse won that one, but the scene of the two of them here did have its unmistakable normalcy.

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