When the trumpet announces the start of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, there will be a sentimental favorite — a one-eyed bay colt named Patch who has qualified against the odds for the world’s most famous horse race.
Patch’s breeders had hoped for big things from the thoroughbred sired by Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags. But last June, just as his racing career got going, Patch’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, noticed Patch’s left eye was swollen and filled with tears. Despite intensive treatment at an equine hospital in New York, the inflammation worsened, and veterinarians finally concluded they could not save the eyeball.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” Pletcher recently told racing magazine Thoroughbred Today.
Aside from the potential dangers of surgery, removing it was likely to end Patch’s career as a racehorse. But the alternative was worse.
“He was in a lot of pain before they realized they had to take it out,” Patch’s exercise rider, Isabelle Bourez, tells PEOPLE. “I believe the pain went away after the surgery.”
Pletcher sent Patch to his father’s stable in Florida to recover. Then, two weeks later, his father called with surprising news.
“My dad said, ‘This horse seems perfect. He’s fine. I don’t see any reason he can’t go on and train,’ ” Pletcher recalled during a recent press conference.
“After being so unfortunate, his comeback is really amazing,” adds Bourez, who rides Patch every morning. “He always seems in a good mood, like nothing happened to him.”
Patch went on to qualify for the Kentucky Derby in March, despite having raced fewer times than other horses due to his convalescence.
The only precaution his handlers take, Bourez says, is to approach Patch carefully so they don’t startle him.
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He has quickly become a fan favorite, with his own Twitter account.
And in the run-up to the Derby, Patch — who was named before he lost his eye — seems to revel in the attention from onlookers, says Bourez.
“A lot of horses don’t like it, but I can tell he responds to having fans,” Bourez says. “There will be kids screaming his name, and he just loves it. He has an incredible attitude.”
Patch’s condition is rare, but not unique. Four other half-blind horses have raced the Kentucky Derby in its 143-year history, according to officials at the racetrack, Churchill Downs. None of them have won the race.
Patch is also considered a long-shot contender in the race, which will be broadcast live Saturday on NBC, starting at 2 p.m. EST.horse