LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In the land of the Derby, might the one-eyed horse be king on Saturday?
That is what those associated with Patch are hoping for, as Patch, who had his left eye removed before he ever raced, attempts to become the first horse with just one eye to win the Kentucky Derby.
There have been a handful of horses that competed in the Derby while missing an eye, such as Patch, or were blind in an eye, such as 2004 Derby participant Pollard's Vision. Imperialism, who had compromised vision in his right eye, did the best of those known to have sight issues when he finished third in the 2004 Derby.
Patch is trained by Todd Pletcher, who also trained Pollard's Vision. The way the horses lost their sight differed, but Pletcher said Patch, like Pollard's Vision, does not appear to be hindered. He is especially impressed by how far Patch has progressed since he lost his eye in July after commencing training last year at age 2 and working up to a half-mile in workouts.
After the eye was removed, "I thought he'd need to be rebroken," Pletcher said. Patch was sent to the Ocala, Florida, training center run by Pletcher's father, J.J.
"He said, 'You'd never know he's lost an eye.' He sent him back to me on Sept. 27," Pletcher said of his father and his horse. "I'm amazed at how well he's adapted. I always let him know I'm coming. I'll whistle or something. I don't want to startle him. But he acts like any other horse around the barn. And in his racing and training, you can put him inside or outside, and he's comfortable. He doesn't carry his head funny.
"Most horses who have lost an eye have lost one early on and don't have to adjust. Pollard's Vision, his eye didn't function early on. When I bought him as a 2-year-old, a lot of people were afraid of that eye. It was misshapen, like a miniature eye, not fully developed."
Patch earned his way into the Derby by finishing second last time out in the Louisiana Derby. As if he didn't have enough to overcome compared to his rivals, he is the least experienced horse in this year's field, with just three starts, all since Jan. 15. If not for the setback last summer, he probably would've raced sooner and had more starts.
Just how Patch initially damaged the eye remains a mystery to Pletcher. On the morning of June 19, three days after the horse worked a half-mile at Saratoga, "we found him in his stall with the eye swollen, almost shut, heavy tearing," Pletcher said.
"There was no indication he had been cast, no scratches around the eye. We called the vet and treated him right away."
After initially being treated at the barn, Patch was sent to the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Saratoga Springs, New York.
"They decided they couldn't save the eye," said Pletcher, who said his veterinarian, Bill Yarborough, "said it looked like there was inflammation in the globe of the eye."
"No one knows what happened," Pletcher said. "There wasn't a pathology done. It was very, very odd. I've had a lot of horses come through the barn, and this is something I'd never seen."
Cassaleria, who ran in the 1982 Kentucky Derby, might've been the most accomplished one-eyed horse ever to enter the race. He had won two stakes, including the El Camino Real Derby, prior to the Derby. His co-owner was Tom Gentry, a natural-born showman who produced T-shirts and bumper stickers promoting Cassaleria, as well as big, gold souvenir buttons that had an etching of an eye, under which was written, "Cassaleria: thine eye has seen the glory."
"You would think with only half his vision, it would be a handicap, but it wasn't for him," Darrel McHargue, who rode Cassaleria in many of his races, including the El Camino Real Derby and the Kentucky Derby, recalled last weekend.
"There was one race at Bay Meadows. He's going along very kind, sitting where I want to sit, I'm ready to ask him," McHargue said. "There's a small opening along the rail. It wasn't wide enough that I thought we should go through, but he accelerated right through that hole. He wasn't timid at all. It must have looked bigger to him than to me.
"He was never shy. He had a big heart. He was truly a courageous little horse."
Cassaleria finished 13th in the Derby. Pollard's Vision finished 17th.
The odds are against Patch in this Derby, but considering the handicap he has overcome, he has already outrun them to get here.