Kentucky Derby taking place under shadow of 4 horse deaths, trainer suspension


Churchill Downs suspended trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. indefinitely and Lord Miles, who is trained by Joseph, was scratched from the Kentucky Derby on Thursday, as part of the fallout from four horse deaths in the past week as horse racing’s Triple Crown chase begins.

The suspension prohibits Joseph, or any trainer directly or indirectly employed by him, from entering horses in races or applying for stalls at all Churchill Downs Inc.-owned tracks.

The decision comes after the deaths of Parents Pride on Saturday and Chasing Artie on Tuesday. Both collapsed on the track and died after races.

“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, CDI president and chief operating officer, 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.”

Investigators have yet to find any cause in the deaths of Joseph’s two horses in a 72-hour span, along with two others over the past week. Besides Joseph’s horses, Derby long shot Wild On Ice and three-year-old filly Take Charge Briana were each euthanized after they broke down with musculoskeletal injuries during training or racing at Churchill Downs.

The four deaths have cast a pall over Churchill Downs in the final preparations for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

“This is the worst part of the game,” said Mike Repole, co-owner of early Derby favourite Forte. “It’s very sad.”

First horse deaths for suspended trainer

Joseph said earlier Thursday he was questioned by investigators from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and Churchill Downs.

“They found no wrongdoing on our part,” he said.

Joseph received permission from the KHRC to scratch five horses from others races on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the Daily Racing Form. He already had scratched one on Wednesday. He told reporters earlier in the day that he scratched any horse that had been in contact with the two that died, out of an abundance of caution.

A bespectacled man in a jacket and jeans is shown walking on a dirt horse racing track.
Saffie Joseph Jr. is shown during Thursday morning training for Lord Miles. The horse was later scratched from Saturday’s race. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Joseph, a 36-year-old third-generation trainer, said earlier Thursday that investigators examined his barn, checked the horses’ veterinary records and took blood samples from each of his horses, which showed nothing abnormal. The feed, hay, straw and supplements used by the horses were checked, too.

The deaths are the first for Joseph, who came to Florida in 2011 after training in his native Barbados.

“It crushes you. It knocks your confidence, it makes you doubt everything,” he said.

Joseph said the first necropsy done on his horse didn’t reveal a cause of death.

“We’re living on unknown terms right now, so that’s the uneasy part,” he said.

Repole believes it would help if the sport did more to reassure the public how seriously it takes safety.

“People will understand injuries,” he said. “People won’t understand injuries with death.”

Some reforms, but others delayed

The industry was rocked in 2019, when more than 40 horses died at Santa Anita in California. As a result, a raft of safety reforms were enacted that have spread around the country.

“The horses get great care and we do our best to prevent these kind of things, but they still happen,” Joseph said. “A lot of times in those sudden deaths you never get answers.”

LISTEN / Front Burner episode during the Santa Anita controversy:

Front Burner20:40After thirty horses die, questions about racing’s future

The death of 30 horses at the famed Santa Anita racetrack in California this season has sparked a public outcry over animal welfare. The facility is owned by The Stronach Group, a wealthy Canadian company. Today on Front Burner, L.A. Times contributor John Cherwa explains what it all means for the future of horse racing, and the Stronach family business.

The deaths come as horse racing’s new anti-doping and medication control program has stumbled out of the starting gate, delayed multiple times for nearly a year amid lawsuits by those opposing the new rules and frustration from those eager for national uniform standards in the sport.

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) took effect on July 1, 2022, with two major components: racetrack safety and antidoping and medication control.

The Antidoping and Medication Control (ADMC) program was supposed to start at the same time as the safety program. Instead, it has been pushed back multiple times amid legal challenges.

The ADMC program covers drug testing, drug samples, out-of-competition testing, rulings and penalties. Labs will test for the same substances and at the same screening levels as opposed to different states testing at differing levels.

Certain performance-enhancing drugs can enhance endurance or mask pain, leading to horses overextending themselves and injuring their legs. Others horses have suffered cardiac events.

The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has pushed back against HISA and it, along with Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the new governing body’s constitutionality. The HPBA represents about 30,000 owners and trainers in the U.S. and Canada.


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