All is not roses opening week at Churchill Downs ahead of the 149th Kentucky Derby

May 3, 2023

4 equine fatalities start the Kentucky Derby meet at Churchill Downs in the worst way possible

A sad and odd start at Churchill Downs for the 149th Kentucky Derby week

Update: Saffie Joseph suspended indefinitely by Churchill Downs following two fatalities opening week at Churchill Downs, Lord Miles is out of the Kentucky Derby as a result

There are not many guarantees in horse racing. Not none, just not many. If you are in or around this game long enough you’ll see it and quickly realize it is the most tragic part of our sport right along with the slaughterhouse. It sickens most of us, we detest it, but we learn to live with it and some are tirelessly working to minimize it. Some, not all. We all need to, we owe it to the horses who give so much. You are only as strong as your weakest link. Yes, I have said that before about our sport.

First things first. Our hearts go out to all the connections of all 4 horses talked about in this article.

Wild on Ice who had qualified under the Kentucky Derby points system and was training for the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs suffered an injury either after or during a morning workout for the race. The colt was transported to Rood and Riddle Veterinary Hospital where he was euthanized.

Take Charge Briana, a 3-year-old filly trained by Wayne Lukas, a Hall of Fame 4 time Kentucky Derby winner fell in the stretch on the Churchill Downs turf course and was euthanized on the track as a result of the injury.

In what has to be considered the oddest and most unusual occurence is that two horses trained by Saffie Joseph, each collapsed and died under as of yet unanswered and unexplained circumstances during a live race at Churchill Downs. Chasing Artie, collapsed and died after the 8th race on the turf course on Tuesday. Parents Pride collapsed and died after the 8th race on the turf course last Saturday night, opening day of the meet. Besides both horses being trained by Joseph and dying during the 8th race on the turf course, both were owned by Kenneth Ramsey and ridden by Luis Saez. Saez, who lost a younger brother, Juan Saez to a tragic racing accident was not injured. Luis is scheduled to ride Tapit Trice for Todd Pletcher in The Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Sudden deaths in racing are rare but not unheard of. I remember when a horse named Mr. Nickerson suffered sudden death and collapsed during the Breeders’ Cup Sprint race at Belmont Park. It was 1990 and the same year the brilliant filly Go For Wand suffered a fatal injury two races later in The Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Most of us know Medina Spirit suffered a sudden death training at Santa Anita. Medina Spirit finished first in The Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified in a case still being fought over a betamethasone positive.

What is extremely rare is for two horses from the same barn under such similar circumstances to suffer this fate so close together.

What can be done? Unfortunately not all that much. That said we have to do more. A lot more. 4 fatalities in short span gets attention. PETA is already sending out statements. I know, I received one:

“The biggest horse race of the year is now preceded by a body count. Three deaths at Churchill Downs in the week before the Kentucky Derby means injured, sore, or sick horses are being forced to race. The track should close down immediately to put safety protocols in place, including reviewing all veterinary records and medications, observing workouts, and, as PETA recommended years ago, installing standing CT imaging equipment to detect injuries. Dirt and turf tracks should be replaced with synthetic surfaces, which statistics have long shown to be the safest. Horses should not be dying for human entertainment.”

Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President, PETA

I am not a fan of PETA. I do believe they would like to shut down horse racing. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be on the right side of an argument. Some of the things Guillermo said are already being done, some are questionable, (synthetic surfaces) and some make sense.

The KHRC should have the Vets list updated with all the Churchill Downs horses on it not just Turfway Park and Keeneland. We should have an answer and transparency for things like this:

Why are the horses coming off Derby Day and after they do, can we go back and review these records? Are any other horses running in the stakes on the list? What about a horse like Two Phil’s who shipped in late? It is not as simple as transparency. The question has to be asked and answered as to why so many of the so called top and best horses are on the Vets list so close to the most famous race in the country and the most exciting two minutes in sports. How can all Brad Cox’s horses be on the list? Are any Todd Pletcher horses on the list, he also has multiple entries? Are we pushing too hard? Is this normal training and simply therapeutic? If we are going to improve perception we have to deal with these things head on. Where is HISA? Where is Churchill Downs? Where is the KHRC? Yes, we have to gather the facts, but we need to be in front of these issues.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) will have necropsies performed and hopefully we will have those results quickly, they will be public, and they will find a cause. We shall see.

Churchill Downs will see great amounts of money wagered this weekend despite these occurrences. As a bettor who loves to wager on and support The Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby cards I for one would like all this information at my fingertips, especially when it comes to Vet lists and who is on them and why.

As an industry we have to do better across the board. California following what was referred to as a rash of break downs implemented new protocols many found harsh but seem to have made a difference. Prominent owner and breeder Mike Repole recently told Kentucky they should be the model for the nation. Presently I do not believe they are but I agree they should strive to be as should all states that have horse racing.

HISA delaying some of their rules and protocols until after The Kentucky Derby is a mystery to me. How we can continue without an even playing field, one set of rules for all, fairly enforced consistently, a central governing body forcing tracks to work together, just makes no cents and if you can’t make cents you won’t make dollars. Yes Churchill Downs will make a ton of money this week, but many tracks are on life support. The industry as a whole is on life support. We need the answers to the questions and we owe it to the horses. I’d like to think the sad and somewhat bizarre start to Derby week is a wake up call. I’ve been around too long for that.

sperare il meglio

UPDATE:

Following our article Churchill Downs issued the following statement:

Statement From Churchill Downs Racetrack

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Transparency is an important component of our commitment to safety and accountability in horse racing. We share the concern of our fans who have questions about the recent equine fatalities at Churchill Downs Racetrack and we extend our sincere condolences to those who love and cared for these horses.

Since Opening Night of Kentucky Derby Week, two horses trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. have died suddenly of cause yet to be identified: Parents Pride on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday. Two other horses sustained musculoskeletal injuries from which they could not recover: Wild on Ice last Thursday while training on dirt and Take Charge Briana during a turf race on Tuesday. Wild on Ice was transported to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital for care, but both were ultimately euthanized for humane reasons.

While a series of events like this is highly unusual, it is completely unacceptable. We take this very seriously and acknowledge that these troubling incidents are alarming and must be addressed. We feel a tremendous responsibility to our fans, the participants in our sport and the entire industry to be a leader in safety and continue to make significant investments to eliminate risk to our athletes. We have full confidence in our racing surfaces and have been assured by our riders and horsemen that they do as well. 

Each horse was transported to the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostics Lab for complete necropsies.  We continue to press for answers and are working with regulators to conduct swift and thorough investigations.

The safety and well-being of horses is a critical issue for which everyone in the industry shares responsibility; however, we will continue to take every measure to ensure that we are providing the safest possible environment for horses on our property.

While we at Past the Wire appreciate Churchill Downs addressing an obvious concern, we would have preferred if they also spoke towards the issues with The Vet list. That said any progress is good. 

Update 2:

The KHRC updated the Vet list today. Todd Pletcher horses are on it that were not on it previously. By date, it appears they should have been. 

Churchill Downs also released the following:

CHURCHILL DOWNS SUSPENDS TRAINER SAFFIE JOSEPH, JR. INDEFINITELY

Lord Miles Out of Saturday’s 149th Kentucky Derby

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Thursday, May 4, 2023) – Churchill Downs Incorporated (“CDI”) announced today the indefinite suspension of trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. until further notice. The suspension prohibits Joseph, or any trainer directly or indirectly employed by Joseph, from entering horses in races or applying for stall occupancy at all CDI-owned racetracks.

CDI’s decision follows the highly-unusual sudden deaths of two horses trained by Joseph at Churchill Downs Racetrack: Parents Pride on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday. Lord Miles, trained by Joseph, has been scratched from Saturday’s 149th running of the Kentucky Derby.

“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,” said Bill Mudd, President and Chief Operating Officer of CDI. “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.”

Under these unusual circumstances we believe this to be the right call, but we'd still like to know what is up with the Vet's list. 


Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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