Saffie Joseph Jr Returns To Kentucky Derby With Catalytic

Catalytic preparing for the Kentucky Derby.
Catalytic preparing for the Kentucky Derby.

Saffie Joseph Jr. embraces this year's hectic preparation for the milestone 150th Kentucky Derby a little more than usual because he didn't know if such a moment would happen again after last spring's tragic events here.

Losing two horses after racing just days apart was painful enough for the trainer as he primed another for the 149th Derby. Then came the indefinite suspension and subsequent Derby scratch of entrant Lord Miles by Churchill Downs, as the historic track endured a heart-breaking spate of 12 horse fatalities around its marquee race.

  1. Joseph-trained Parents Pride and Chasing Artie were among seven horses that died in the week leading up to the Derby, followed by two more on the undercard. A subsequent investigation found no wrongdoing and Joseph was reinstated; but the discipline, the excruciating wait for the outcome and negative spotlight thrust upon him still stung.

"What happened was very concerning, and then to have that and be suspended, that wasn't the right approach, I thought," Joseph said Wednesday morning. "It crushed me because I love my horses, I love what I do and then to be portrayed that way. … That was frustrating.

"But in the end, they got the truth, the truth prevailed. God is good and he continues to be strong."

Joseph credits his faith often for sustaining him through that personal and professional crisis. The Barbados native pulls a jewel-encrusted cross necklace from beneath his shirt as he talks about trying to move forward.

Joseph has done well enough to earn another crack at the Derby with Catalytic, whose consolation for finishing 13½ lengths in second behind Florida Derby winner Fierceness was earning 50 qualifying points into the 20-horse Run for the Roses. Catalytic is a 30-1 long shot from the No. 5 post position, while Fierceness is the 5-2 morning line favourite in the $5 million race.

Asked whether he feels vindicated to have another Derby competitor, Joseph just feels fortunate to have another opportunity, even with a colt who finished far behind the winner.

He saw potential in Catalytic after the son of Catalina Cruiser and One Show Only by Distorted Humor broke his maiden in his lone juvenile start last fall at Gulfstream Park in Florida. An illness forced an extended break before the horse returned to finish second in an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs on March 8.

Catalytic's Florida Derby performance three weeks later provided Joseph encouragement among a mix of emotions.

On the one hand, there was obvious joy in earning enough points to again pursue his dream of running in the Derby. On the other hand, the potential return reminded him of the hurt he endured here, a feeling he acknowledged may never go away.

"You heal slowly when it's a scar inside and there's a lot of pain," he said. "You could only go forward and show who you are. That's it. That's all I can do."

Joseph's busy barn just off the far turn on Churchill Downs' backside is proof of that. Some of his 16 horses stabled there were finishing up workouts including Catalytic, the obvious object of a stream of passersby.

That Catalytic will start the Derby exactly one year after Joseph's banishment is somewhat ironic, and a big reason why he's soaking in the atmosphere.

"It's not easy to get here and up to March, I didn't think we had the horse to get here," Joseph said. "We're here again, we have a couple more days to go and hope it goes well


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