15-to-1 longshot winner Mage is barely noticed amid seven horse deaths
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky––Kentucky Derby post-mortems began in 2023 ten days before the 20-horse field walked to the starting gate, but they were called “necropsies.”
The more familiar term “autopsy” is used only when the deceased is human.
The upset victory by Mage, a horse with 15-to-one odds against him, was upstaged by fatal injuries suffered by seven horses at Churchill Downs during the run-up to the 149th annual runnings of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, the most prestigious U.S. race for fillies, held as a Derby preliminary.
Wild On Ice suffered fatal slip
First to fall was Kentucky Derby entrant Wild On Ice, euthanized due to a severe left hind leg injury suffered during an April 27, 2023 training run.
Code of Kings died on April 29, 2023 after flipping and breaking his neck in the saddling paddock before a race.
Soon afterward the four-year-old filly Parents Pride collapsed after her race and didn’t get up.
Take Charge Briana suffered an irrecoverable injury during a May 2, 2023 turf. She was euthanized soon afterward.
Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. suspended
Chasing Artie, like Parents Pride, was owned by Ken Ramsey, trained by Saffie Joseph Jr., with Luis Saez as their jockey.
The two breakdowns by a single team at a single meet caused Churchill Downs to suspend Saffie Joseph Jr. indefinitely.
The suspension, despite no immediate finding of wrongdoing by any member of the team, “prohibits Joseph, or any trainer directly or indirectly employed by Joseph, from entering horses in races or applying for stall occupancy at all Churchill Downs Inc.-owned racetracks,” the company said in a prepared statement.
“We have reasonable concerns,” says track president, but perhaps mostly about public response
“Given the unexplained sudden deaths,” Churchill Downs president Bill Mudd told David Close of CNN, “we have reasonable concerns about the condition of his horses, and decided to suspend Joseph indefinitely until details are analyzed and understood.”
Because Joseph was suspended, Lord Miles, the fastest horse in his stable, was scratched from his chance to compete in the Kentucky Derby
“I’m the scapegoat,” Joseph fumed to Close. “They’ve had more deaths this week, and here is Saffie, this is the problem.
“But the reality of it is,” Joseph said, “that I’ve never had horses die from [unknown causes] before. They’ve had injuries, but never from something that was unknown. It’s unknown what caused it.”
“Deaths are the first for Saffie Joseph”
In fact, reported Beth Harris for NBC, “The deaths are the first for Joseph, who came to Florida in 2011 after training in his native Barbados.”
Daily Racing Form said that before Joseph was suspended, he received permission from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to scratch five horses from races on May 4, May 5, and May 6, Derby Day itself.
“He already had scratched one on May 3,” Harris recounted. “He told reporters earlier in the day that he scratched any horse who had been in contact with the two who died, out of an abundance of caution.
“Despite the deaths, Joseph had planned to run Lord Miles in the Derby,” Harris continued. “The colt arrived from Florida; the two dead horses had been at Keeneland in Lexington.
“Joseph, a 36-year-old third-generation trainer, said earlier Thursday,” Harris added, “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.”
Suspending Joseph accomplished nothing toward reducing the Derby week death toll.
In undercard races ahead of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, Chloe’s Dream was euthanized due to a knee injury suffered during the second race.
Freezing Point euthanized due to an ankle injury suffered in the eighth race.
Yet another horse, Here Mi Song, a five-year-old gelding, was removed from Churchill Downs in an equine ambulance after the 10th race, but X-rays showed no fractures.
Marty Irby weighs in
Participating in the pre-Kentucky Derby post-mortem, lifelong horseman Marty Irby, who until recently was executive director of Animal Wellness Action, recalled in a May 3, 2020 posting to Facebook that, “In May 2019, the Kentucky Derby saw the disqualification of the first horse to cross the finish line in the race, Maximum Security, due to an infraction––something that hadn’t occurred in the 51 years since Dancer’s Image was disqualified for a drug infraction in 1968.
“Up next was the death of Mongolian Groom at the Breeders’ Cup in Del Mar [California] in 2021, a terrible and gruesome death that came in the wake of dozens of horses breaking down on the track as the body count continued to climb at Santa Anita, just north of Los Angeles.
Irby pulls up trainer Bob Baffert
“In March 2020,” continued Irby, “just days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, horse racing was plagued by the arrest and indictment of 27 trainers, veterinarians, and others involved in the largest illegal doping cartel any sport has ever seen in the U.S.
“Medina Spirit, the first horse to cross the finish line in the 2020 Kentucky Derby,” Irby recalled further, “was disqualified for testing positive for an illegal level of a steroid known as betamethasone.
“The horse’s trainer, Bob Baffert, who has pushed the envelope in the sport for decades with questionable tactics and methods––said the horse had not been administered the drug. He later walked his comments back after a secondary test from the split sample proved otherwise.
“Medina Spirit dropped dead”
“Tragically,” Irby added, “Medina Spirit dropped dead of a cardiac event later that year at Santa Anita, amid a legal battle that saw Baffert disqualified from the 2022 and 2023 Derby events due to the Medina Spirit debacle.”
Irby lauded the the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act, signed into law in 2020, which created a federal government agency called the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority, but implementing the HISA, as it is called for short, has been delayed by ongoing horse industry opposition to the existence and regulatory scope of the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Authority.
Keith Dane: more threats than just doping to horse welfare
“While doping is believed to be a major contributor to racehorse breakdowns and fatalities,” observed Humane Society of the U.S. senior advisor on equine protection Keith Dane in a May 4, 2023 blog post, “there are other ongoing threats to racehorse welfare,” but Dane opined that, “The Authority established by the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act is well-positioned to address them.
“Implementation of the new safety rules is off to a fair start,” Dane wrote.
“For example, while the use of whips continues to be a very visible, visceral and controversial element of racing, the Authority has established strict rules limiting their use, penalizing jockeys who violate those rules. The Authority is also working to address the dangers of unforgiving track surfaces that have not been properly maintained, which can also lead to breakdowns, injuries and fatalities.”
Kathy Guillermo: horse racing pointed toward oblivion
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals senior vice president Kathy Guillermo was considerably less optimistic that the Horseracing Integrity & Safety Act can save horse racing from itself.
“The staggering decline of horse racing in the U.S. is pointing it toward oblivion,” Guillermo wrote on May 3, 2023.
“The betting handle (total amount bet) in the U.S. has been stagnant for three decades,” Guillermo pointed out, “and when adjusted for inflation has fallen precipitously.
“In 2022, the number of thoroughbred foals born was half what it was in 2005,” Guillermo continued. “Dozens of tracks have shuttered and for many of those that remain open, attendance is so sparse they resemble COVID safe zones, with 20 people at a track that used to bring out 20,000 bettors a night.
“All about racing to breed rather than breeding to race”
“Many more tracks would have closed long ago,” Guillermo suggested, “but for the injection of cash generated by the placement of slot machines or video lottery terminals in or near the tracks. In New York, for example, the 11 thoroughbred and standardbred tracks [still operating] enjoy $230 million in video lottery terminal subsidies—and return just $10 million to the state in pari-mutuel wagering taxes.
‘By contrast, betting on other sports brought New Yorkers $909 million in just its first year.”
“It’s noticeable to even casual fans,” Guillermo charged, “that winning horses are retired to stud at the age of three or four—before they’re even physically mature—because the risk of life-ending injury is so great. Get them to the breeding shed fast before a broken leg eliminates years of stud fees. Flightline was retired to stud after just six races.
“Horse racing is now all about racing to breed rather than breeding to race,” Guillermo alleged, a point ANIMALS 24-7 has been making since June 1999.