LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Brooklyn Strong needed a few horses to drop out to make the Kentucky Derby and now needs to make it to Churchill Downs at the latest possible minute.
The defection of trainer Brad Cox’s Caddo River on Sunday opened the door for Daniel Velasquez’s Brooklyn Strong to be the 20th and final horse in the field for the Run for the Roses. The New York-bred named after one of New York City’s five boroughs worked out at Parx outside Philadelphia on Monday and will be vanned overnight to Louisville to get settled in for his biggest race.
“It’s absolutely insane,” Velasquez said about the quick turnaround. “I can’t put it into words. ‘Chaos’ is the only thing I can think of because it’s just been that chaotic the last 24 to 48 hours.”
Brooklyn Strong was 23rd on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard a week ago, which normally would lead Velasquez and owner Mark Schwartz to give up on the chances of making it and look toward the Preakness or Belmont. An unusual amount of dropouts paved the way for Brooklyn Strong to make it after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Wood Memorial on April 3.
“I almost stopped paying attention last week because I was just over it,” said Velasquez, who got a feeling this was coming when he only needed two more horses to exit to make it. “I told Mark: ‘Somebody’s going to be out. From the way they’re dropping out, we’re going to get in.’”
It’s still a surprise for a horse who has run only twice since November. Brooklyn Strong’s 10 qualifying points from winning the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in December are the fewest by any horse to make the Derby since Giant Finish in 2013, the year the points system was introduced.
“I’m going there now with no pressure,” Velasquez said in a phone interview from Parx in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. “Now I have zero pressure because I don’t think anybody expects me to do anything anyways, so I’m just going to enjoy it.”
Schwartz, who booked jockey Umberto Rispoli to ride and is trying to get friends and family tickets and accommodations for the weekend, pointed out that Brooklyn Strong beat Derby rival Known Agenda in the Remsen and is confident going into Saturday.
“He’s not a long shot in my mind,” said Schwartz, who didn’t know how much respect oddsmakers would give his horse. “If he’s ready like he was in the Remsen, if he runs like he did in the Remsen, I have no problems. He’ll be there. That’s how I feel. I think the horse is tremendous.”
The story around the horse is just as insane. Schwartz got into racing through a buddy he used to play hockey with, and Velasquez is still recovering from a serious accident a month ago.
Velasquez’s liver was lacerated and a labrum in one of his shoulders torn when a racehorse rear-ended his pony as he was leading another horse onto the track. He may still need shoulder surgery, but said that won’t keep him from getting Brooklyn Strong ready for the Kentucky Derby.
“I’m a little stubborn,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be saddling this horse, but I’m going to do it.”
Kornacki to Derby
Political correspondent Steve Kornacki, who has gained increasing fame since the presidential election, is taking his talents to the Kentucky Derby next. Kornacki will offer some insights on betting trends and analyze the top Derby contenders.
This isn’t Kornacki’s first foray into sports: He broke down the NFL playoff picture on NBC’s “Football Night in America” late last season. Kornacki will try to replicate one of his earliest horse racing memories, when he picked five consecutive harness winners at Scarborough Downs in Maine as a kid.
Black jockeys honored
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday signed a proclamation honoring African-American contributions to racing. Beshear named the final week of April “Ed Brown Society Week” in the state after the 19th century Black trainer.
“I can’t imagine a better way to start Derby week then ensuring derby is truly available for everyone, and that we address and confront our past as it relates both to this and other industries,” Beshear said.
Owners Greg Harbut and Ray Daniels, who saddled Neckar Island in the 2020 Derby, were set to be on hand for the proclamation. They’re founders of the Ed Brown Society, which seeks to create a pipeline for Black executives and sprout a generation of new fans to diversify the sport.
Midnight Bourbon closed the likely final Derby major workout among the 20 hopefuls strongly, clocking 1:02.40 over five furlongs Monday over a fast track at Churchill Downs.
His workout with exercise rider Wilson Fabian included splits of 24.40 and 49.60 and he galloped out six furlongs in 1:16.20 as the colt looked to improve from finishing second to Hot Rod Charlie at the Louisiana Derby in March.
“I’m very happy with how he went,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “We got exactly what we wanted and he continues to do very well.”
Asmussen’s other colt, Super Stock, jogged a mile on Monday, two days after clocking 1:01.20 over five furlongs in Saturday’s final Derby work.
Tori Kelly will sing the national anthem at the Kentucky Derby.
The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s performance will be shown live on NBC Saturday.
Kelly joins such past performers as Mary J. Blige, Harry Connick Jr., Lady A and Josh Groban.
She recently collaborated with Justin Bieber and released a Christmas album last year.
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington and AP reporter Piper Hudspeth Blackburn contributed to this report.