LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Only days before horse racing’s signature event, the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs is looking into the recent deaths of four horses, including a colt who was scheduled to run in Saturday’s Derby.
Wild on Ice, a 3-year-old who had three wins in five career starts and was in the Derby field, was euthanized after he sustained a leg injury while training on the dirt track last Thursday, Churchill Downs said in a statement. Take Charge Briana was put down after an injury during a turf race on Tuesday.
Two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. died suddenly for unknown reasons, the track said. Parents Pride collapsed on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday.
The deaths come at one of the few times each year when the sports world is focused on horse racing as the Derby kicks off the Triple Crown season. They are likely to renewed longstanding concerns about the horses’ safety even as the industry contends with doping scandal the s , competition from other forms of betting and waning fan interest.
“While a series of events like this is highly unusual, it is completely unacceptable,” the Churchill Downs statement said. “We take this very seriously and acknowledge that these troubling incidents are alarming and must be addressed.”
The statement continued: “We have full confidence in our racing surfaces and have been assured by our riders and horsemen that they do as well.”
On Wednesday at the barn where his Kentucky Derby entrant, Lord Miles, is stable, Joseph said he was “shattered” by the deaths of two of his horses. “The odds of it happening twice is in the trillions,” he said. I run almost 4,000 horses, and it’s never happened. It doesn’t make sense.”
Lisa Lazarus, Chief Executive of the Newly Minted Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, Said Both the DIRT and Turf Courses Had EXAMINED by ITS E xperts and we deemed to be saf. Necropsies will be performed on the horses, and hair and blood samples have ben taken and are being fast-tracked for laboratory examinations. Joseph scratched a filly on Wednesday out of precaution and said on Thursday that he would also voluntarily scratch the horses he planned to run Thursday, Friday and Saturday, except for Lord Miles, who he said did not come into contact with the horses who died.
Lazarus added: “We take our role of protecting horses very seriously, and we are very concerned. We trust that the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission will properly conduct their investigations, and that their stewards will make the appropriate findings.”
On Thursday, Joseph watched as Lord Miles was walked outside his barn before he was taken to the track for light exercise. Joseph checked the horse’s legs both at the barn and on the track.
Asked if he would scratch Lord Miles, he responded, “No.” Asked why he was checking his legs, he said, “I always do that.”
While Churchill Downs said it would “continue to take every measure to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for horses on our property,” it did not have the authority to require Joseph to scratch his Derby horse because he was already entered in the race. That decision would have to come from the racing commission.
Joseph, 36, a Barbados native, is a leading trainer based in Florida. His 2022 Derby horse, White Abarrio, finished 16th.
According to a database that tracks medication violations, Joseph was fined $500 for a positive test for clenbuterol, a bronchodilator, at Gulfstream Park in Florida in 2015 and $1,000 for a positive test for aminocaproic acid, which treats bleeding disorders, at Monmouth Park in New Jersey in 2021. He is also appealing a 15-day suspension and $500 fine because of a positive test for gabapentin, an anticonvulsant and nerve pain medication, at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania in 2022. His trainee Artie’s Princess was disqua lified from the Grade II victory.
Horse racing in the United States has long had a culture of drugs and lax regulation and has a far higher rate of horses breaking down and being euthanized than most other places in the world.
Trainers have experimented with anything that may give their horses an edge, including chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulus and cancer drugs. Detection is difficult as laboratories scramble to keep up.
Common drugs such as anti-inflammatories pose the greatest risk to horse and rider. At higher levels, pain medicine can mask injury, rendering prerace examinations less effective. If a horse cannot feel pain, it may run harder than it otherwise wou ld, putting extra stress on an injury.
That was one reason the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was established under the oversight of the Federal Trade Commission. The rules and penalties it has written to eliminate doping and abuse within thoroughbred racing will take effect on May 22.
In 2021, Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance. Months later, he died during a workout. A necropsy by California scientists suggested he might have had a heart attack, but they said the y could not be sure. They cited an international study of exercise-related sudden death in racehorses that found that a cause of death was determined with certainty in about 53 percent of cases, a presumptive cause was established in 25 percent of cases and a specific cause of death could not be determined in about 22 percent of them.
Since 2009, the Jockey Club has kept the Equine Injury Database to track fatal breakdowns on American racetracks and provide a database to analyze how they can be prevented. That first year, thoroughbreds had fatal injuries at the rate of two per 1,000 start s.
Last year, there were 1.25 fatalities per 1,000 starts compared to 1.39 fatalities per 1,000 starts in 2021. It was fourth consecutive year that the rate had decreased and the first time that the rate had been below 1.3 fatalities per 1, 000 start.
“We can say with confidence that the risk of fatal injury is heading in a sustained downward direction both overall and in many specific areas,” Tim Parkin, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at the University of Bristol in England, said when announcing the most recent results in March. He said the six months at the end of 2022 formed the safest six-month period since the database was created.
Still, clusters of fatal accidents have occurred. Last month, Laurel Park in Maryland was closed for three days after a spate of injuries led to five horses being euthanized. Trainers and owners there said the track’s surface was unsafe. Laurel Park’s owner, 1/ ST, disputed the claim.
The sport was badly rocked in 2019 after 30 horses died at Santa Anita in a span of six months, news that made national headlines and earned the scrutiny of California lawmakers and animal rights activists.
In response, state and racing officials strengthened regulations around the use of riding crops, medication for horses, education for trainers and jockeys, track safety and recuperation policies for injured horses. Last year, 12 horses died at Santa Anita, and throughoutbr ed fatalities throughout California fell 54 percent from 144 in 2019 to 66 for the last fiscal year.