Churchill Downs suspends trainer indefinitely following 4 horse deaths

Animal Wellness Action President Wayne Pacelle says horses aren't prioritized enough following four deaths in six days.
Published: May. 4, 2023 at 6:05 AM CDT|Updated: May. 4, 2023 at 5:17 PM CDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE/Gray News) - Equine athletes are dying. Four horses have died at Churchill Downs in six days, with one of them being a derby horse.

The news is marring the most important week of the year for horseracing in Kentucky.

Churchill Downs says trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. has been suspended from Churchill Downs indefinitely following the death of two horses.

The racetrack on Thursday announced Joseph’s indefinite suspension will prohibit him or any other trainer directly or indirectly employed by the trainer to enter horses in races or apply for stalls at the track.

The announcement came moments after Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Board of Stewards stated all horses trained by Joseph would be scratched effective immediately and until further notice.

This includes Derby contender Lord Miles, who was intended to run from post 19.

“This action is taken after consultation with Mr. Joseph, and includes Lord Miles who was entered into the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby,” the statement reads.

In a statement on Wednesday, Churchill Downs said that two horses trained by Joseph died suddenly of undetermined causes. Parents Pride died suddenly on Saturday, and Chasing Artie collapsed and died following Race 8 on Tuesday.

Two other horses, Wild on Ice and Take Charge Briana, sustained critical musculoskeletal injuries from which they couldn’t recover. Both were euthanized for humane reasons.

“While a series of events like this is highly unusual, it is completely unacceptable,” Churchill Downs stated.

“Given the unexplained sudden deaths, we have reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses, and decided to suspend him indefinitely until details are analyzed and understood,” Bill Mudd, President and Chief Operating Officer of CDI said in a statement. “The safety of our equine and human athletes and integrity of our sport is our highest priority. We feel these measures are our duty and responsibility.”

Earlier on Thursday, Joseph said he would not pull Lord Miles but had scratched all his horses that were connected to the two dead horses.

Still, the Animal Wellness Action called for stewards to further act following the two incidents.

“The guy who’s lost two horses not to breakdowns but to sudden deaths in the days before the Derby should not be allowed to put a third horse at risk,” Animal Wellness Action’s Wayne Pacelle said.

Churchill Downs has a number of rules that horsemen must follow in order to race, but only the state stewards can order a horse off a race.

The cluster of deaths this week comes as horse racing’s new antidoping program that was supposed to be in place was postponed until late May.

There’s a major shock factor when it comes to the deaths, especially considering the horses were so young, ranging from 3 to 5 years old.

It’s a factor making those in the horse racing industry wondering if a change is imminent.

“Why is there a suspension while the most important race in all of horse racing is about to occur?” Animal Wellness Action President Wayne Pacelle asked.

He’s referring to the mid-May suspension of horse racing’s new antidoping program that would create a national standard for testing.

The Federal Trade Commission oversees the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and said the suspension was made to “avoid the chaos and confusion that could occur if the anti-doping rule became effective on May 1.”

Pacelle said he believes the suspension may be one of the reasons for this cluster of injuries.

“Some drugs may be making them more vulnerable as they’re racing at 45 miles per hour on a track,” Pacelle said. “It may have to do with the selective breeding or the champagne glass legs for these horses, and they may just be simply more vulnerable to breakdowns because of the breeding.”

The same turf track three of the four horses were injured on was under scrutiny in 2022 after it was installed and led to it barely being used due to emerging problems.

Pacelle said he believes the care of the horses should be at the forefront.

“The gambling, the pageantry, the winnings, all of those things are important. They’re a part of the industry. They’re a part of the marketing,” Pacelle said. “But don’t forget about the horses. They’re responsible for the entire enterprise.”

Two more horses were reported to be pulled up and vanned off from their respective races Wednesday at Churchill Downs. The injuries are not expected to be life-threatening, and they are both back at their barns and are being monitored.

The deaths are reminiscent of 2019, when 42 horses died at Santa Anita Park in California before reforms there.

California and New York, which hosts the Belmont Stakes, each have thorough reporting requirements and a database cataloging equine injuries and fatalities. Kentucky does not.